“It seems like you probably have OCD.”
Her words, so calm and casual, pierced my heart. For a while, as I learned more about OCD beyond its cultural stereotypes, I wondered if this was another aspect of my anxiety disorder. But as I heard the words come from my own psychiatrist, the possibility became a diagnosis and the questions became reality. My brain was crippled in yet another way. Only this time, some of the very character traits I considered to be some of my strengths were now labeled as a brain malfunction.
Being diagnosed with a mental illness can come as both a relief and a shock. In some ways, it’s the answer you grappled to find for so long, and a path of potential relief opens up to you after years of searching in the dark. But it’s also a painful recognition that our bodies are broken.
Loving someone with a mental illness can feel like piecing together a broken glass mosaic. There are many tiny shards, and we don’t know where to start or even how to start in a way that won’t cause further injury. How do we love them? We come with sympathy, nuance, and the love of Christ.
What Not to Say to Those Diagnosed With a Mental Illness
If you’re like me, maybe you stumble with your words. You try to tread so carefully with your tongue. But often you feel either tongue-tied or like you need to cover your mouth to stop another foolish thing from being said. In that case, here are a few things not to say to those diagnosed with a mental illness.
Maybe You’re Experiencing Spiritual Warfare.
Whether or not someone is experiencing spiritual warfare is a difficult question to answer (simply because of the abundance of perspectives on the topic). But when we simply say to a sister in Christ that her struggle is all spiritual warfare, we negate her physical diagnosis and her physical needs to get better, such as medication and therapy. We are both spirit and body, and we need to be careful not to emphasize one over the other. We never want to undermine the necessary work a loved one is doing with their doctor or therapist by suggesting only a spiritual answer.
Perhaps You Need More Faith.
Mental illnesses are a form of suffering and the sad reality of living in a world cursed by sin. While it’s true that our heavenly Father disciplines his children for growth in holiness (Heb. 12:4–11), we should never conclude that someone’s suffering is due to a lack of faith. Suffering is allowed by God’s good and wise hand for reasons we may never understand. When the disciples assumed a man’s lameness was due to sin, Jesus corrected them (John 9:1–3). Likewise, when Job’s friends assumed his sin caused his suffering, God called them to repent for speaking falsely (Job 42:7–9).
If You Just Did XYZ, You’d Be Better.
We often like to quickly chime in with our advice on how they can get better or find relief. This is usually from a heart to help our loved one. But when we do this, we can minimize the pain they’re feeling by assuming that our suggestion or simple trick would fix it. And often, they’ve already tried many of those things to no avail. It’s best to leave advice to the professionals.
How to Support Someone with a Mental Illness Diagnosis
How do we show love to those diagnosed with a mental illness? Here are a few practical steps you can take.
Learn More About Their Diagnosis.
Check out a reliable website or book to learn more about their specific mental illness. Our culture offers many stereotypes when it comes to mental illnesses, many of which are skewed or completely unrecognizable from their true definition.
Be a Listening Ear, Not a Counselor or Psychiatrist.
We may think we can best love our friend by filling in for their counselor or psychiatrist when they have a hard day. We may try to implement some of the things we learned online about their diagnosis and offer advice or guidance. But there’s a reason why professional counselors and psychiatrists spend years studying the subject of mental health. It’s complex and nuanced. To love our friends with mental illnesses best, we need to leave the counseling to the professionals and simply be a listening ear. Let them know you hear them and love them and you’re sorry for the pain they’re feeling. Don’t try to fix them.
Ask How You Can Best Love Them.
Since mental illnesses are so complex, nuanced, and varied, and each person is unique, what may be helpful to one person is a trigger to another. Ask your loved one how you can best support them rather than assume or make an educated guess.
Be Aware of When You Should Seek Help.
Once again, many of us aren’t professionals. If you’re concerned about the well-being of your friend or others who may be vulnerable, get immediate help. Talk to one of their caregivers. Or, if you are the caregiver, call their doctor, psychiatrist, counselor, a help line, or, in emergency situations, 911.
Still Them, Still Image-Bearers
As I grieved my new diagnosis with my husband, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re still the same person, Lara. I loved you then, and I will love you now.”
A mental illness diagnosis can be scary. You may feel like you’re wading into dark waters as your loved one gets diagnosed, unsure of what’s ahead and what’s underneath. But the person you loved before the diagnosis is still there. Even more, they’re still an image-bearer of God. The way we love them is the same as the way we loved them before—with the same love Christ has shown us. The way that looks may be nuanced, it may change, and it may have many layers and unknowns, but the gracious, sacrificial love Christ showed us will always be our measure. “We love,” John wrote, “because he first loved us” (1 John 4:19).
Meet the Author
Lara d’Entremont is a wife and mom to three from Nova Scotia, Canada. Lara is a writer and learner at heart—always trying to find time to scribble down some words or read a book. Her desire in writing is to help women develop solid theology they can put into practice—in the mundane, the rugged terrain, and joyful moments. You can find more of her writing at laradentremont.com.