Most involved in discipleship in the local church for any length of time will encounter mental illness among those seeking to grow in Christ. Sometimes leaders recognize mental illness. Sometimes they don’t. But if you do recognize it when you face it, here are some thoughts to keep in mind as you seek to help one who struggles to see how the gospel meets them in the confusing battles they face.
1. Jesus defeated Satan on the cross, and one day, we will see all that has been broken healed for eternity. Have hope for this image bearer of God. No matter how deep their struggles and how often they reoccur, one day they will ultimately be freed from the weight of the struggle. They need your encouragement to persevere when the struggle is at its worst as you also remind them of the hope they have that it will not always be so.
2. The brain is an organ. Whatever your spiritual understanding of how the gospel informs someone’s battle with cancer or heart disease, much of that philosophy equally applies to mental illness. Mental illness is tricky because it is often hard to distinguish from sinful patterns of thought. Sinful patterns of thought and mental illness can feed one another. But those with cancer and heart disease still struggle with sinful mental thought processes as well. If we separate sinful patterns of thought from biological sickness, we still have gospel hope for each. The good news of Jesus speaks to both the physical and spiritual results of the fall of man, and it speaks to them when they overlap as well.
3. It’s OK to not know answers and is, in fact, much better to not speak definitively about mental illness if you have not been professionally trained to do so. The hope of the good news of Jesus is that Someone does understand and has a better plan than we could ever put in motion ourselves. It’s OK to say, “I don’t know.” It will bless someone struggling if, instead of giving pat answers, you simply listen, ask clarifying questions, and pray with them. Over and over again if necessary.
4. DON’T suggest to someone to quit medicine. DO offer to walk with them with their doctor if they don’t have other family members who will. According to The Bipolar Survival Guide: What You and Your Family Need to Know, having a team of family, friends, and medical professionals is key to long term success for an individual navigating mental illness. One symptom of some forms of mental illness is that a person doesn’t think they need medicine or doesn’t trust their doctor who prescribes it. It’s important to calmly reinforce being honest with their doctor about their symptoms and working with their doctor to make a plan moving forward.
This article is not meant to offer definitive instructions for discipling someone struggling with mental illness. The goal is simply to cause us to think on how the good news of Jesus speaks into the particularly complex physical/spiritual/emotional struggles the mentally ill face. The bottom line is to avoid simplistic answers, persevere in relationship with the one struggling, and, most of all, hold onto hope with them that Jesus has defeated Satan, sin, death, and disease, and they can look to the future with expectation.
For further reading: http://www.ccef.org/resources