Thank you to those who read and commented in whatever way you did on yesterday’s post! Today’s post goes out to people on the “other” side. How should you respond when someone tells you they have a mental illness or when you find out that someone is struggling with their mental health, especially in a church setting?
I can’t claim to know all the answers because obviously each individual is different and therefore has a unique personality and needs. Plus, I don’t really know. Personally, what I would like from others is understanding (as far as possible) and not judgment. Check the “just make up your mind to be happy” mentality and pep talks at the door. Please don’t tell us to snap out of it. Most likely, whatever we are freaking out about (especially with OCD) will sound ridiculous to you. You may be tempted to say, “Oh, well just stop doing that” or “That’s not true! You won’t get sick from that!” Please don’t say it. (Chances are good we already know that but it doesn’t stop the fact that we are obsessing and doing compulsions just in case).
Because that’s the thing about mental illness, isn’t it? The illness itself doesn’t really make sense when you aren’t mentally ill. That’s why it is classified as such. An illness. An abnormality. Demanding that someone return to normality when it wasn’t their choice to veer off the path doesn’t work. When someone has a cold, you don’t tell them, “Oh, well just stop clogging up your nose with mucus. Drink some orange juice and you’ll be fine. Just try to ignore it.”
Negating people’s experience…
is also not helpful. Try to avoid asking them if they are “sure” they have “clinical” OCD, depression, anxiety, or whatever. It’s not like they can spit in a cup for their doctor to say, “Oh yes, your OCD and bipolar levels look a little high today.” If they are struggling enough to own up to it and be telling you, chances are good you should take it seriously.
In addition, telling them that maybe something else is going on or that you have similar problems isn’t really the best idea (unless you really do have OCD or depression or whatnot… because then that is an awesome way to share experiences and provide help). But saying something like, “Well, I used to be worried about organizing my house too, but since having kids, I just let it be a mess! And it’s fine!” makes people facing an actual problem remember why they don’t openly tell others about their mental health.
“We are all little weird sometimes”
Saying that maybe it’s just a quirk or that we all do weird things is similarly to be avoided. Yes, people have quirks, but mental illness goes beyond quirkiness. It makes a person feel like someone or something else is literally controlling their behavior, and they are helpless to stop or fight against it. A quirk is something that makes someone unique or a little odd, not debilitated and unable to live a normal life.
So what can I do…?
Now you might be saying, well what do I say? What do I do? Nothing? Well, first of all, listen. Don’t jump in with the “Oh I used to…” remarks or “But you seem totally fine! It’s all in your head!” (Our response: well, yes, technically, it is, but no, I am not totally fine). Just listen. Ask questions without being judgmental or trying to propose your own grand solution to the “problem.” Stop thinking like that in the first place. This is more than a “problem” that just needs to be solved and then filed away. This is a life. A brain. A mind. A personality. A person.
Most importantly, recommend and provide support for the person to find and get help. Many mental illnesses require, or at the very least can be assisted by, going to see a professional. Don’t pretend to be an expert in something you are not, but support the individual in finding an appropriate psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist. Going to the Bishop is fine, but don’t expect him to solve the problem either. Seeking help is sometimes the hardest part of the journey to recovery and stability, but, at least in my opinion, it is essential.
Also, telling someone just to “pray and fast and have more faith” to overcome their mental illness is also inadequate and can be hurtful. Elder Holland said in his talk about mental illness, “Broken minds can be healed just the way broken bones and broken hearts are healed.” Yes, praying, fasting, and having faith is important, but that alone in most cases isn’t enough to set a broken leg or provide healing to someone who has cancer. Don’t treat mental illness as a special case that is exempt from professional assistance.
Most of all, please try not to be awkward. Remember you are still talking to a person, not just an illness or a stereotype. Let any preconceived ideas you might have about their struggle encourage a positive discussion and not a judgmental one. Be sensitive to the limitations that they are facing. And don’t start being awkward and weird. Chances are they are already dealing with enough weirdness and awkwardness as it is.