3 Things to Avoid When Ministering to Those Suffering from Mental Illness

Common Pitfalls Are Silence, Platitudes, and Error

We make many mistakes in what we say to sufferers. Partly because of ignorance, discomfort, or fear, we end up saying nothing, or nothing helpful, or everything wrong. These are all pitfalls to avoid, so let’s look at them more closely and explore how to make our words healing bridges rather than damaging holes.

Some of the biggest pitfalls to avoid are silence, platitudes, and mistakes.

Silence is a pitfall. Although there are times when silence is appropriate, too much of it is unhelpful to the mentally ill. That’s because they will often misinterpret silence as lack of love, concern, or sympathy. They may even read criticism into your silence. Another way of silence harming the mentally ill is when we simply avoid them. We don’t visit them, or we don’t stop and talk with them. Again, this silence does not go unnoticed and can add to the suffering.

A Christian's Guide to Mental Illness

David Murray, Tom Karel

This accessible resource answers 30 commonly asked questions about mental health from a Christian perspective, providing caregivers with the biblical wisdom necessary to care for those with mental illnesses.

Platitudes are a pitfall. The second worst thing to silence is clichés and platitudes. Pep talks and patronizing advice are agonies. These usually come in one of three categories. The first category is false promises, which means assuring people of quick and easy recovery with no basis in fact. “You will be better soon . . . This will pass . . . You’ll get over it . . . This will be sanctified to you . . . I know how you feel . . .”

The second category of platitudes is false equivalents, which is when we compare sufferers to others, usually unfavorably. “There are others worse off . . . It could be worse . . . I know somebody else with this . . .” When a person is mentally ill, it often feels like there’s no one else in the world like this. Comparing them to others only makes them feel worse.

The third category of platitudes is false “shoulds,” which impose obligations on people or set unrealistic expectations. “You should get out more . . . You should stop taking meds . . . You should repent . . . You should trust God more . . .” Many mentally ill people already impose a huge number of false “shoulds” on themselves, and therefore this only increases the pain. “Should” or “ought to” statements convey a sense of superiority of the speaker to the inferior sufferer, resulting in more shame and alienation.

All of these are platitudes that people hear in other contexts and just thoughtlessly apply to this unique situation without considering how devastating they can be.

Error is a pitfall. The greatest error we can make is condemnation. Usually, the worst thing you can do is criticize people with mental illness, tell them that they are to blame, they are guilty, they are weak, they are not being Christian, and so on. In many cases it’s like blaming someone for having cancer or diabetes. It is grossly unfair and heaps false guilt on top of everything else.

The second error is that of amateur diagnosis. One thing the mentally ill often have to contend with is people who know nothing volunteering or even forcing their own diagnoses and prescriptions on them. They pick up pieces of information in popular culture or on websites, or from some extremist or other, and then use that little knowledge to attempt to cure someone with mental illness. This is not only foolish; it’s dangerous.

We don’t want to fall into any of these pitfalls, do we? So, if these are the negatives, what are the positives? If these are pitfalls to avoid, what are the ways to build bridges?

Good Bridges Are Confession, Learning, and Prayer

First, admit the difficulty. Confess to God and to sufferers that we’ve made mistakes in the past, we’ve fallen into pitfalls, but we want to be constructive, not destructive, going forward. Talk to the person and “say sorry” for wrongs done and said in the past. Ask them for help to speak wisely and helpfully into their lives. “I don’t know what to say, and I wish I had some really good advice. Just know that I care and will be praying for you.” Give them permission to let you know when you are being helpful or unhelpful. Pray for wisdom from above to speak wisely and winningly so that no one loses.

Pray for wisdom from above to speak wisely and winningly so that no one loses.

Second, learn from others. Talk to friends and family of other mentally ill people and ask them what they’ve found works and what doesn’t. Get permission to talk to any counselor in your loved one’s life and ask them how you can support their work. What you will hear will guide you. For example, you may be advised to

  • Listen before you speak.
  • Ask questions before you give answers.
  • Support and reinforce counseling.
  • Gently offer hope and encouragement.
  • Learn from mistakes.
  • Speak quietly and slowly.
  • Share from your study.
  • Turn to positives.
  • Admire and encourage what is good.

Third, ask God to help you speak, to help you speak truth, and to help you speak lovingly. Ask him for love to make you seek out the mentally ill and spend time with them. Pray that your words will be healing rather than wounding. Remember this great promise: “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5).

This article is adapted from A Christian’s Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions by David Murray and Tom Karel.

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