by Sarah Condie
The text I received from Ella* was bleak. She couldn’t sleep, hadn’t eaten for ages, was angry with God and other Christians. She had had enough of feeling so dark.
I’m not a trained mental health professional. I have neither the ability nor the responsibility to “fix” Ella. But as a sister in Christ, I want to “weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15) and help bear the burden of another (Galatians 6:2).
What can we do to love and offer Christian care to those like Ella? With mental health challenges on the rise—whether depression, loneliness or more difficult illnesses—Christians are increasingly faced with questions of caring more deeply for those in our midst. But we don’t have to shy away from such issues nor do we need to stigmatize friends experiencing mental health problems. Certainly, some will require professional support. But often we can help in practical ways with some basic and biblical responses.
After praying, seeking wisdom from others, and asking God for guidance, I responded to Ella in several small but meaningful ways:
1. I asked how Ella was feeling and I listened
I gave her time to answer. I put my phone in my bag and used non-verbal cues to show I was fully present. Then I let Ella tell me how bad she was feeling, about how desperate she was. I nodded and asked her to “tell me more”. A tap had been turned on and she needed to talk. All I did was listen but when she stopped, she told me I’d been helpful, though I hadn’t said much at all.
Listening is an act of love because it focuses on the other. James commands us to be quick to listen and slow to speak (James 1:19). Or as the wise counsel of God puts it, “To answer before listening, that is folly and shame” (Proverbs 18:13). When interacting with those struggling with mental health, listening can be a first step in moving forward.
2. I let Ella choose how much she shared
I didn’t push or probe. I knew Ella needed courage to open up, to feel safe. But such trust is earned through gentleness and kindness.
When I felt it was appropriate, I also asked Ella if she had seen her doctor recently, and offered to take her. I could listen and be with her, but I knew too that if I felt out of my depth, I’d ask for help to support Ella and ensure that I wasn’t overwhelmed by her despair.
3. I asked the question that is so hard to ask
“Are you thinking about taking your life?” She promised me she wasn’t. Professionals suggest it’s better to ask this question because it shows you care and will decrease their risk. If she had said “yes”, I would have encouraged her to call a Suicide Helpline, and not left her alone until she was in a safe place.
We then made plans to meet the following week. I offered to meet for a few weeks so we could review. She seemed genuinely thankful at this and agreed. Asking tough questions can be a step toward healing.
4. I asked Ella if I could read God’s word to her and pray
This was what Ella desperately longed for. It was too hard to face going to church but her soul was hungry. She needed to be reminded that in God she had hope. She had many questions, she told me she felt like God was silent and had abandoned her. She believed God didn’t love her.
I turned to the Psalms. Often David’s struggles help us with our own and remind us of the truth about God. It reminds us not what we have to do for God, but that God is for us. His eyes are on his children, and He hears our silent groans.
5. I asked Ella about her well-being
Over time, I asked other questions: about sleep, exercise, if she was eating. I gave her a small blank book and encouraged her to jot down three things that she could thank God for each day. I asked if she would meet me before church and offered to sit with her. I encouraged her to go to a small group and connect with her friends.
Of course, every person is unique. Mental health difficulties range from the mild to the severe. But Christ-centred care does make a difference. I saw Ella make small improvements. She texted me once and asked if she could write down more than three things to be thankful for! She began to volunteer at church. Yes, she continued to wrestle with her questions and her faith. But she moved forward.
Not everyone responds the same. But Christians are called to love others in the same way Jesus loves each one of us. As God’s people, we can offer light and life to those in the darkness of mental health challenges. And we don’t need to be a professional to care for them.
*”Ella” is a pseudonym to respect the confidentiality of the interaction.
Sarah Condie is a Co-Director with her husband Keith of the Mental Health & Pastoral Care Institute at Anglican Deaconess Ministries in Sydney Australia. She is also a women’s Pastor and Director of Well-being & Care at Church by the Bridge in Sydney, Australia. She loves to read, walk, quilt, drink cups of tea with friends at the kitchen table, and write on her blog when she can.