"I feel abandoned ... I feel misunderstand ... why do they avoid me?" Almost everyone we serve, and the numerous people I have talked to dealing with a mental health challenge, often say these things about their church, friends, and family. Not only the individual, but often times the families with a loved-one struggling with mental health difficulties or a diagnosis have the same experience. They stay quiet and out of the way to avoid rejection.
Unfortunately this is why many of them hide behind the mask of "I'm fine," isolate from others, and even why they choose death to escape the heavy burden of depression.
Without the simple ingredients of community no one recovers.
The idea of serving someone who is struggling with a mental health difficulty or diagnosis sounds, and feels, overwhelming. Unfortunately, that’s why people pull away, but it doesn't have to be this way. Here are two simple things anyone can do ... and what to consider.
1) Rebuild trust through joy… One of the greatest secrets in rebuilding trust is through joyous laughter. Simply relax and laugh!
We all love and want humor, trying at all cost to elude pain - because it takes the edge off. Think of all the TV commercials you remember most — chances are they are the most humorous ones. Research reveals that humor has huge benefits for people when they’re grieving or dealing with life's hardships. Laughter has positive physical effects, strengthening the immune system, benefitting circulation and the muscles around your mid-section, and lowering mental and emotional stress. We always use laughter in our Thrive workbook and Support Groups because people need to be enjoyed.
Laughing through anxiety … one of the people I have coached through our Thrive workbook experienced extreme anxiety, and our conversations were quite serious. But every week, through the course of our dialogue, I always made an effort to connect with a joyful spirit and if possible to share a big laugh together. This was not to negate their serious challenges, but to add-in the balance of joy. This individual always walked away refreshed.
Laughing through tension … a family I consulted/coached a while back was having incredible tension with their loved one (living with a mental health difficulty). I first helped to empower them to discover ways to navigate life unique to them, however we also discussed how to rebuild joy. We simply discussed taking time to play a game or watch a comedy movie together - keeping it simple to rebuild relationship through these non-threatening times. Thus, the simple rule in those times was to lay aside all the "issues," do not bring them up or subtly use them as leverage in any sort of way. They fought through the discouragement and tried it. They were surprised how much it helped. I talked to their loved-one and it was helpful in lower the wall of tension. Life was not perfect, but they were re-building and establishing a message to each other ... "We may be at odds, but I still love and enjoy you." They were rebuilding a safe relationship.
“Therefore encourage one another and build each other up,” (1 Thessalonians 5.11) or “Do not let any unwholesome talk come from your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up according to their needs, so that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4.29).
2) Rebuild trust through encouragement … There is a reason why the apostle Paul wrote to the churches to encourage one another with benefit to build up their lives! Stress build tension and leave us on edge with each other, especially when navigating mental health stress.
It is easy to focus on the hurt, the betrayal, the damage, and making sure we keep distance from their "strange" behavior, but we can still focus on GIVING them encouragement. It will strengthening them personally and even help in reducing their symptoms (anxiety, fears, depression, voices, mania-anger, and even tactile hallucinations). I often do this when I visit with people in distress and I often see two things: tears of relief and their difficult symptoms begin to minimize (even within minutes). Why because it empowers them to a new reality about themselves and begins to calm down the mind and mood.
The biggest struggle with mental health difficulties and mental illness is the ongoing challenge of negative thinking. So much of their therapy is learning to manage and restructure these negative thought patterns. Encouragement rebuilds a person’s self-worth and boosts them into living off that new "belief-worth." It is part of building emotional wholeness, and we all need it!
Plus, when you look at the Bible, this is God’s nature. He looks past our flaws, mistakes, and the diagnosis and always encourages us with a greater purpose and wholeness of who we are.
The most powerful thing you can say to someone is, "I believe in you."
During one of Peter’s early encounters with Jesus, Peter tells Jesus to reject him because he is so plagued with his failure and being unworthy to God, “go away from me I am a sinful man” (Luke 5.8). Jesus responded by not even addressing his failures or mistakes, instead Jesus calmed his fears and gave him encouragement. Jesus responded to Peter about his true identity and a purpose, “Don’t’ be afraid, from now on you’ll be a fisher of men.”
Jesus knew the dominion of sin was not Peter's identity, nor his purpose. Thus, in Christ eyes, He does not see a mental health disorder as the person's identity or their purpose. Jesus knew it was His grace that would be Peter's new reality. It's almost like Jesus was saying, "Before you can really understand and believe in Me, Peter, I believe in you ... and I have great things for you." What was Peter's response ... He left everything to follow Jesus.
Encouragement produces hope.
After one of our support group meetings, I took 5 minutes to encourage a man with co-occurring issues with addiction and mental illness. He was destroying his own life, his marriage, and his family ... and there was a lot of tension within his relationships. He was so hurt, he was full of anger and despairing hopelessness. Yes, he had made mistakes, but deep down all he wanted was someone to believe in him. After simply listening to some of his pain, I encouraged him with the valuable characteristics I saw in him, connecting him to an attitude of hope. I looked passed the pain, scars, and mistakes and reminded him who he truly was ... his full worth to Jesus. His anxiety and tension faded within minutes and tears streamed down his face ... it was like a cup of cold water for a soul in drought. He was all ears, received my encouragement and some discussion to empower him to discover some ideas he could try. That following week life take a new turn to begin making effort from his own initiative, not from the expectation of others. Sometimes encouragement can go a long way!
A wise college student who has a mental health disorder said, "Suicide prevention is not about knowing the signs, it's about relationship."
I used these above principles with a person living with a mental health disorder and, in the height of their symptoms, had made a poor choice. I just happened to be one of the safe people who understood their mental health disorder, so this person called crying sharing about the situation. I then discovered they were on their way to end their life. I didn't focus on the "mistake" and we did not make it the defining moment of their whole lives ... we reframed to safety in God and the grace process. This person started discovering and seeing a different perspective for themselves. Even by the end of the conversation they were some small laughter and a new willingness of hope. It was a journey, but this person is alive and continually comes back saying, "thank you, this literally saved my life."
Joy and encouragement does not equal overnight change.
These tips may not work the first time or event the second, third ... or in the next month. Most of the time, some people are so discouraged and hurt that they end up cussing you out (and I have had some of those encounters, too). I don't take it personally, it's their pain ... and I simply look past it to see what Jesus sees.
If you're a family trying this with your loved-one and they seem more agitated, be patient because you are setting a new course for the relationship ... as best you can, stay consistent with grace. Even if you mess up, it is totally okay, just keep going and come back giving grace (for you and your loved one). Also, this does not mean you do not have appropriate boundaries for yourself and them, this is more about building a healthy environment for your relationship. It’s a lifestyle change and part of the environment needed for the recovery process. Take your time learning. Love energizes grace and grace energizes love ... to endure and believe in all things well.
Let us know what you think. What else do you think helps to prevent isolation and suicide?
Comment here and on our facebook page.