What Not to Say to Someone Struggling with a Mental Illness

She told me I was bipolar because of my blood sugar.

We were sitting in a large cafeteria and the noise of little kids buzzed around us. The place was full of YMCA campers and conference-goers, like me.

I’d gotten to the camp for my Christian conference earlier that morning. I was handed a map and told to go find my lodge. Map reading isn’t my specialty (read: I’m 25 and still can’t understand maps), so it took me a good twenty minutes to find my room. I settled in, walked around for a while, and then made my way into the cafeteria.

I was suddenly taken back to elementary school, when I would enter the dining hall, dreading the decision of where to sit. I was a shy child, so finding someone to sit by was always a challenge. Would it be awkward if I sat by someone I didn’t know? What if they didn’t want me to sit by them?

After grabbing a tray of not-very-good food, I realized I’m not a whole lot different from my elementary school self. When faced with a room full of people I don’t know, I find the table with no inhabitants. I try to avoid social anxiety as much as possible. The problem? There were no empty tables.

I decided to sit by two women at the end of a long table. They both looked like they were in their fifties, both looking way more dressed up than my jeans and sweater look.

You can do this, I told myself. Just be friendly.

We chatted for a few minutes and I mentally congratulated myself on how well I was doing. We were all writers, so I figured conversation had to be easy enough since we had something in common.

Then they asked me about my thesis.

“Is it published?”

“No, not yet.” Swallow your pride.

“What’s it about?”

I’m just now getting used to this question. It’s hard to explain my 250 page thesis in one sentence, but it’s more than that. If I tell a stranger what my book is about, they’re going to know I have bipolar disorder before they know anything else about me. And since there is still so much stigma surrounding mental illness, that’s intimidating.

I told them what it was about—a faith journey in light of a bipolar diagnosis—and watched their eyebrows raise.

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

“Um. Yes.” I was surprised by how personal her question was. I couldn’t decide if it bothered me or not. Was my medication any of her business?

“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 forward 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 am, wanting to be an advocate for faith and mental illness, but too embarrassed and intimidated to speak up when the time arises.

Considering that brief interaction I had, it’s no wonder why someone with a mental illness feels uncomfortable around other people of faith. Why is it that some Christians are so quick to give a pat answer?

If you speak openly of your mental illness to someone you don’t know, the last thing you want is that someone telling you how to fix it.

 

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 say more, those women tried to apply band aids to something they didn’t understand. They didn’t know me at all, but they assumed they had all the answers to something deeply personal.

It makes me want to crawl back into my shell, take the “bipolar” out of my title, and shut the door. 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.

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.

 

Don’t pretend to understand something you don’t.

Don’t make assumptions.

Read cues—is the door even open for a conversation?

Respond to vulnerability with understanding and respect, not band aids.

 

I think that’s a good place to start.

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6 thoughts on “What Not to Say to Someone Struggling with a Mental Illness

  1. I think many people fall back on these kinds of blanket explanations/cures as a way of actually denying the reality of mental illness. They can’t understand it. They don’t want to admit it exists. They have no clue how to cope with it. So they come up with ways to fit it into the narrow range of reality that they know. They can push it away from themselves with the false security of a simple answer.

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  2. Anna, I believe you are brave enough for this journey! Your story is proof of that. 🙂

    I think Christians (and let’s be real, humans in general), feel incredibly uncomfortable with the idea they have no control over some things. So, we try to come up with answers/reasons/solutions… to push away the reality that there are simply some things we can’t understand/ can’t control/ and might never have answers to in this life. I think this is extra painful in the church, and with Christians because often we assume they are safe. Not to mention the stakes seem quite high with the Christian claims (“just pray and God will heal you” type stuff).

    I’m learning it takes more faith to say, “I don’t know” and “I don’t understand” and “I know God can heal, but He hasn’t and I don’t know why,” than to use some sort of mental gymnastics to come up with some answer simply so that I have an answer. I’ve been calling it “the power of ‘I don’t know’ ” :).

    The more we get comfortable allowing space for the unknowns, the more we can love people well who are in them!

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  3. It seems like there are some people who are ignorant because they simply lack information, but there are also a lot of people who actively choose ignorance.

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  4. You’re so right! The Holy Spirit CAN do anything; it doesn’t mean that He WILL. There’s a good reason for that, which I won’t go into here, but it’s a critical point that people need to understand and accept. Thank you for sharing your story and the practical advice.

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  5. Keep being brave. Your story matters, and I have no doubt you can make things different. Everywhere? Maybe not. But God has put you in particular spheres of influence. Speak boldly and loudly to all who will listen, and even to those who won’t. We need to hear what you have to say.

    So proud of you!

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