If you’ve been around here very long, you know one of my hot topics is community. Community can look a lot of different ways, but at our church, we have established community groups with which we regularly meet. Other churches have countless names for these – home groups, small groups, life groups, etc.
Whatever the official name, it references a committed group of people who know your strengths and struggles and can advise you with Biblical wisdom on life’s circumstances and decisions. They provide both friendship and accountability, and in larger churches, they operate as your smaller community of believers. These are the individuals that serve as the hands and feet of Christ in your life.
In authentic community, no topic is off the table, but some issues feel too daunting, even for the most mature Christians. Mental illness tends to be one of those issues. In fact, most of the people I have worked with feel both overwhelmed and under-equipped when it comes to ministering to someone with a mental illness. I was asked to create a resource for our church to equip community groups dealing with a member’s mental health issue, so I thought I would share it here, as well.
For the mentally ill, wellness cannot be achieved without community. Isolation breeds illness.
As Christians, we know that living in community is a necessary element in the life of a believer pursuing Christ. For an individual living with a mental illness it is essential to maintaining not only spiritual health, but also mental health and stability.
Below are some guidelines for community group members to ensure you are loving a member suffering from a mental illness well.
Familiarize yourself with the specific illness.
A great place to gain a base understanding is the National Institute of Mental Health’s website.
Ask the individual how the illness plays out in his or her life. Mental illnesses manifest different symptoms in varying severities. Learning the problematic symptoms will enable you to be a better support.
Mental illness is lonely and isolating. Be a safe place for the individual to share their pain and fears.
Ask what you can do to help and support them.
Depression is known as the “no-casserole illness.” If someone in your community had pneumonia or was undergoing cancer treatment, you would know exactly what to do. Treat an episode of mental illness the same way.
Offer to go to the grocery store, mow the lawn, bring dinner, help with childcare, etc. Find out the biggest need, and then meet it.
Determine necessary points of accountability as it relates to the mental illness.
This one is HUGE! This will be determined by talking with the individual and their family (spouse, parent, etc.).
Ask about triggers and how you should help when they happen. There will be some non-negotiables here.
For example, insomnia is a symptom of mania in someone with bipolar disorder. If the individual can’t sleep for several nights, he should let both his community group and his doctor know. He may need to adjust his medications or use sleeping pills to ensure he isn’t thrown into a manic episode.
For someone with depression, it should be established that when intrusive or suicidal thoughts begin to invade, she should talk with her spouse and community immediately at the very moment the thoughts begin.
Seek help if you feel that a situation is beyond the group’s understanding or ability to help.
The staff member assigned to your community group will be able to provide resources and people to assist you.
If the individual speaks of hurting himself or someone else, immediately call 911.
During an episode, the behavior of someone with a mental illness can be troubling, and at times, shocking. It can be difficult to separate symptoms from spiritual rebellion. The key element to evaluate is the individual’s willingness to put himself under the authority of the community group (and spouse) and his willingness to submit to the counsel of the group in periods of wellness, adhering to the established guidelines. Most times, doing so will decrease episode severity and length.
The Mental Health Grace Alliance provides excellent resources for individuals with mental illness, as well as family members and friends. Check out their resource page for further information. You can also read a previous post specific to Bipolar Disorder.