Mental health issues have been part of my family’s life, as well as my own life, for decades. As a public health professor, but also as someone with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I have had to assume the role of caregiver and patient. I understand the many challenges associated with loving a family member with mental illness. It comes with serious pain and heartache, trepidation, frustration, and anger.
Nevertheless, loving someone with mental illness has taught me to show grace, compassion, empathy, and patience, giving me the opportunity to be a reflection of the character of Christ in the midst of difficult life circumstances. As the sole believer in my family, ensuring that I reflect Christ’s character in the midst of hardship has provided a unique opportunity to live out the Great Commission (Matt. 28:16-20).
Conversely, as an anxiety sufferer, I can attest gratefully that there are tangible ways in which our trusted confidants can provide us with the support and encouragement that we need. Most of all, in the midst of our own trials and tribulations, it is essential that we love our Christian brothers and sisters well (John 13:34-35).
Although my professional training is in public health and behavioral science, I am not an expert on the treatment and diagnosis of those with mental illness. My knowledge is mostly an outcome of life experience. I genuinely hope that some of the lessons learned are a blessing to those embodying the body of Christ. While I still have much to understand, here are a few lessons that have been realized over the years:
1. The struggle between what we know and how we feel
As a Christian, I know that it is possible to wrestle between head knowledge, or what we know as gospel-centered truth, and heart knowledge. Oftentimes, in the midst of great pain and sorrow, there is a disconnect between the head and the heart. My hometown pastor, Matt Mason, said it best when preaching a sermon on Psalm 88: “No amount of good theology can take away the pain of longsuffering.”
While this can be true, we must still continue to hold steadfastly to God’s Word as our primary source of hope. It is important to remember that our Savior is not put off by our desperation. He longs for us to seek him in all things. Most importantly, in times of despair, one must remember that crying out to the Lord in total devastation is a demonstration of faith.
2. There is always hope
Many of those who are suffering from or caring for those with mental illness are in the midst of a spiritual war to rediscover hope. When those suffering feel cut off from God’s promises, they need to be consistently reminded that our Savior loves us with an everlasting and unfailing love (Jer. 31:3). Caregivers of those suffering from mental illness must recognize that the retelling of truth will not be a one-time occurrence. Those who are struggling require these reminders time and time again.
As believers, it is our Christian responsibility to continue to spur on others in Christ (Heb. 10:24). If one is caring for an individual in the midst of their struggle with anxiety or depression, faithfulness is needed more than anything else. Be faithful to pray for your loved ones and continue to serve them well even when things seem like they are not changing.
3. Biblical community is a divine gift, not an idol
Biblical community is a God-given gift. We know, and are reassured, that all good gifts come from above (James 1:17). I am abundantly blessed to be in the presence of a wonderful community of Christian believers that have walked alongside me as I wrestle with my own anxiety and depression. With that being said, it is imperative that sufferers of mental illness cling to the cross of Christ prior to depending on others for needed affirmation or reassurance. We must bear in mind that our trusted friends and family can never fill the void in our lives.
Of course, our loved ones can offer us a great deal of joy and support as they strive to meet our needs. However, we must remember that they are not the source of our ultimate joy. Christ is the only one that satisfies. Unintentionally placing our Christian brothers and sisters in an unattainable role is not demonstrative of loving them well. Furthermore, it is turning our God-given friendships into an idol. Like every follower of Christ, sufferers of mental illness must recognize the value of these relationships as on outlet of God’s loving care, not as a replacement of him.
I have come to realize that having the privilege to care for those with mental illness is an incredible opportunity to not only live out the Great Commission, but also apply the Great Commandment to our lives. It is imperative that we love one another just as Christ has loved us (John 13:34-35).
As a sufferer of mental illness, I have learned to reflect upon a simple truth: God uses brokenness and longsuffering to write his children a beautiful story. While struggling with mental illness is not easy, I know that anything and everything can and will be used for his glory. Christians do not experience affliction in vain. By his strength, we are able to handle great difficulty in a way that consistently displays the sovereignty and reliance upon our incredible Savior.