Caring for Those with Mental Illness: Just Love

Anxiety is real. Depression won’t simply be prayed away. Mental illness is everywhere, and it cannot be ignored. We, as followers of Christ, need to do a better job. How can we care for them? What is our place in their recovery? And how can we act like we have no place in it? 

When I think of the many friends and family I know that deal with depression, anxiety, bipolar, I feel helpless sometimes, and that’s just being honest. I don’t know what to do or say, and I don’t know how to help. And many of us don’t. But what if we, as the community of Christians around these people, decided to try? What if we decided to put on their yokes and walk beside them with their burdens? What if we could change the narrative? What if we could accept them, instead of try to change them?

I’m not saying to stop praying for them, I’m just wondering if that is the end. When people are sick in the hospital, we go and we pray for them. But we also bring their families meals, we also sit with them and grieve their illness. We make plans to get them healthy. Not just prayer plans, literal diet plans, and health plans, and physical therapy plans. Why can’t we do that for our friends with anxiety? Why can’t we do that for our friends who are depressed? Why can’t we accept that it’s illness, literal mental illness? 

And why do we feel the need to fix it? A lot of the time it doesn’t need to be fixed, it needs to be lived with. People who are anxious don’t often have control over their anxiety. It can appear out of nowhere for no apparent reason. Instead of saying “Cast all your cares on Him,” we should say, “tell me what’s going on,” or “can I make you dinner, or bring you coffee?” We can pray, but we can also listen, and grieve, and do our best to understand, instead of trying to fit it into a box we are comfortable with. 

Jesus never told anyone to stop suffering, or pray their way out of it. He never walked away from a person in pain, or with an illness he could heal. He sat with them, he listened, he gave them the living water, but he never criticized their pain, or gave them advice on how to get better. He just lived with them, walked with them, grieved with them. And he never accused anyone of not trusting God enough for their healing. These people who suffer with these illnesses trust God, often more than we do, and they pray for their healing, but it’s not always that simple. 

When Adam and Eve ate the apple, sin entered the world, and just because we’ve accepted Christ we are not immune to the effects of that sin. It doesn’t mean we ourselves are sinning necessarily, it just means that sin has caused brokenness, and that brokenness needs healing. And that healing needs people around it to grieve, and serve, and love, and comfort. Healing does not need criticism and quick fixes and bible thumping, it needs love: just love. And I know that we’ve all read 1 Corinthians 13 before, or heard it at a wedding, or in church, but I want you to see it differently this time. See it from the perspective of helping hurting people. 

“Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of wrongs. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance..” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7

And even as I read this with fresh eyes now, I am convicted of all the times I handled it all so wrong. I have been impatient as dear friends have been hurting again and again, and I have been annoyed. I have been impatient with their recovery, impatient with their inability to stop. And I have been unkind; in my impatience I have been unkind. I have demanded my own way more times than I care to admit. In my mind I have demanded that they just stop it, and recalibrate and be more like me. I have demanded my own way for their life, and wrapped it in helpful suggestions for betterment. 

And I have been rude, and I have been proud of myself for not falling into anxiety, or depression, or self-medication. And I have been irritated with the inconsistency, with the ins and outs, with the ups and downs: so irritated. And I have kept the longest list of wrongs. These people I am close to, who have wronged me. I have tried my hardest to forgive, but that list is buried deep in my heart, and love shouldn’t do that.

And I have been hesitant to rejoice when recovery happens. I have been hesitant to trust that it’s happened. I have been so hesitant to rejoice in the truth of that moment with them. But love rejoices when the truth wins out no matter how many times it takes to win. 

And love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance: every circumstance. No matter how we feel failed, or feel hurt, or feel faithless, or empty of hope; love endures. If I were to love, truly love, the people in my life who suffer with these illnesses, how different would it be? How different might I feel, or they feel?

The beauty of this realization, of reading 1 Corinthians 13 with new eyes, is there is forgiveness for a multitude of sins. There is forgiveness for the ways I’ve failed those around me, and there is a way to muddle through the tough stuff, and come out loving them anew. We can start over, we can try harder, we can learn more. We can’t go back, but we can go forward. 

We can be patient and kind. We can stop feeling above them, we can stop acting like our own way is better than theirs. We can check ourself when we’re feeling irritated, we can forgive, and erase those records of wrongs we keep stashed away. We can rejoice every time there is a victory, every time good wins over evil in their lives, no matter how many times it takes to win the same battle. And we can hope for them, we can endure for them, and we can hold tight to the Lord’s promise that even when we give up, love never does, He never does. 

And if He never gives up, we can try our hardest to love anyone in our lives no matter their baggage, no matter their mental state, no matter where they are in their journey.

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