What Not To Say To Someone Struggling With Mental Illness

Written by Anna Shane Stadick, USA

Their eyebrows rose when I told them what I was writing about. I was grabbing lunch at a Christian Writers’ conference, and somehow ended up explaining to two other women that I was writing about my faith journey in light of a bipolar diagnosis. Though I was writing an entire book on it, sharing such personal information with two people I had barely met was still intimidating.

“So are you on medication?” The red-haired woman asked.

“Um. Yes.” I was surprised by how personal her question was. I couldn’t decide whether it bothered me or not.

“You know, it could be caused by your blood sugar levels. I knew a guy once. When he changed his diet, his bipolar thing went away.”

She wasn’t joking. I really wanted her to be joking.

“But looking at you,” she said, pointing to the salad on my plate, “I don’t know if blood sugar is it.”

“Yeah. I don’t think that’s my problem.” I didn’t know what else to say.

The other woman decided to chime in, leaning towards me so that I could hear her better. “Mental illness can be cured by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirt has healed me—I’m living proof of the work of Jesus Christ. Just pray to the Holy Spirit.”

I stared at my plate, no longer interested in eating, before quietly excusing myself. Power of the Holy Spirit, huh? I felt humiliated. What did I regret more? That I had told them about the bipolar disorder or that I hadn’t challenged them? Here I was, wanting to be an advocate for faith and mental illness, but too embarrassed and intimidated to speak up when the time came.

 

How Bipolar Disorder Affects Me

I’ve recently been trying to be more open about my bipolar disorder; I want to be a voice for those with mental illnesses within the church. It’s a scary endeavor, especially when there are so many misconceptions about the illness.

Bipolar disorder is more than just feeling “happy, sad, happy, sad” every day. I experience “episodes”  one to four times a year, each lasting a few weeks to a few months. Most of my episodes are depressive, so my disorder looks a lot like depression. But I’ve also experienced manic episodes. When I’m manic, I usually experience heightened awareness, anxiety, and extreme agitation. I struggle with suicidal thinking just as much when I’m high as when I’m low.

When I’m in the midst of an episode, it’s extremely difficult to go about my everyday life, so holding a normal job and maintaining friendships is challenging. For example, I once had to leave a job abruptly because of an extended stay in the hospital.

Sometimes I experience a “mixed episode” in which I have symptoms of mania and depression at the same time—that’s probably the hardest part of my bipolar disorder. I may never be “healed” from my disorder, but I cope with it as responsibly as I can with medication and counseling.

 

What Not to Say

The reactions I received from the two women are not unusual. It is therefore no wonder that someone with a mental illness often feels uncomfortable around other people.

Blood sugar? Don’t you think I would’ve thought of that? Don’t you think that’s something my psychiatrist might’ve mentioned?

A simple prayer? Do you know how many times I’ve prayed that God would take this cup from me? Do you know how many times I’ve been on my knees, begging for God to take away my depression?

Instead of asking me more about my thesis, instead of inviting me to share more about what I go through, these women tried to apply band aids on something they didn’t understand. They didn’t know me at all, but they assumed they had all the answers to something deeply personal. Honestly, when you share openly about your mental illness with someone you don’t know, the last thing you want is someone telling you how to fix it.

Even worse is to hear others making fun of your disorder. I’ve frequently overheard comments  such as, “Why are you acting so crazy? Are you bipolar?” or “You’re so hyper—you’re bipolar!” 

There is still so much stigma around bipolar disorder, in and out of the church. I know, bipolar disorder sounds a little scary and unpredictable: up, down, up, down. What does that even mean? Mania, especially, sounds really weird. It’s not as common as depression, so it’s less talked about. And “mixed episodes”? Most people don’t even know those exist.

When I’m depressed, I receive support from those around me. When I’m in the middle of mania? Not so much. There just isn’t a lot of information about mania out there, so people don’t really know what to do or how to support me.

But lack of understanding does not mean we should be shamed or made fun of. Or that the word “bipolar” can be carelessly tossed around. Or that people I have never met before should be advising me on very personal parts of my life.

Whenever I experience such encounters, it makes me want to crawl back into my shell, take the “bipolar” out of my thesis title, and shut the door. It makes me terrified to have a blog called “Bipolar, Body, Belief” with my name and pictures attached to it. Maybe I’m not brave enough for this after all. Maybe I’m not cut out to be an advocate for faith and mental illness.

But I don’t think that’s the answer.

 

Some Helpful Ways to Respond

Instead, I think we need to continue to be open about our struggles with mental illness and help educate those in the church about a proper response. Here are some good places to start:

  • Don’t pretend to understand something you don’t
  • Don’t make assumptions
  • Read cues—is the door open for a conversation?
  • Respond to vulnerability with understanding and respect

 

1. Be a safe place

It’s important that those with bipolar disorder—or any mental illness—find a safe place. And that safe place, hopefully, can be a church. After all, a faith community should be a place where a mental illness of any kind is not shamed. A faith community should be a place where illnesses like bipolar disorder are talked about and shared, supported and spoken about with care. Aren’t Christians told over and over again in Scripture to help those in need?

I’ve been to churches in the past that have not been supportive. In one small group I was a part of, bipolar disorder was mocked. We eventually left that church, and it took us a long time to find a different church I was willing to attend. There was a time when I walked away from God, angry over my bipolar disorder. During that difficult time, my husband and I simply didn’t have a grounded community to speak life into our situation.

Eventually, I came to terms with my anger against God, and finally was able to answer His call to come back to Him. I spent a lot of time in the Psalms of Lament—where the psalmist cries out against and to God—in order to reconcile my anger and my frustration with the truths I knew were found in Christianity. A return to faith did not make my disorder any less difficult. But instead of trying to hide my anger, I try to work through it with God.

My husband and I persisted in seeking out a church to call home, and we eventually found one. It’s a small group, but here we feel comfortable enough to be open about what’s going on in my life. So when I’m feeling angry at God in the midst of an episode, there are people I can talk to. I have finally found fellow believers who walk with me through life with understanding.

 

2. Practice empathy

So how can we respond to someone struggling with mental illness? It’s easy enough to come up with what “not to say,” but I’m often asked what someone should say. It’s a hard question to answer, and I can only speak from my own experience. Instead of quoting a bible verse or citing the latest cure on Google, try simply practicing empathy:

“Oh, wow, that must be really hard.”

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you if you need to vent.”

“Tell me what I can do for you.”

 

3. Just be present

But ultimately, it’s the unsaid that counts. Some call it “the practice of presence.” I find it less helpful when someone speaks to me than when someone just listens to me. I find it more helpful when someone just sits beside me when I’m going through a hard time—they don’t need to say anything at all. All they have to do is be present, to give me company, to just be with me.

My husband is very good at being present with me. He knows that he isn’t my psychiatrist or my counselor, so he doesn’t give me a list of things to do to “fix” how I’m feeling. He doesn’t quote Bible verses that I already know.

A couple of months ago, when I was feeling particularly low, he let me cry on his shoulder for a solid hour for the second time that week. Then we just sat together in silence on the couch. He didn’t need to say anything because his presence was enough.

“Practicing presence” is something that has to be learned. It’s knowing how to speak into someone’s pain, and knowing when not to say anything at all.

 

This article was originally published on the writer’s blog here. This version has been edited by YMI.

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