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Ways to Help People with Mental Illness and Their Families

Plus, words that help—and hurt

Mental disorders are common in the United States. An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. In Amy Simpson's new book, Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press), she shares her experience of growing up in the shadow of her mother's schizophrenia. Here is her list of ways to help someone who is suffering from a mental illness, and how to be a support to their families too:

Do what you do for others in crisis. Visit them in the hospital, provide meals, give rides, help care for children.

Get educated. Learn more about types and symptoms of mental illness. Troubled Minds provides a very accessible overview. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) offer excellent educational materials.

Humble yourself. Everyone has problems and bears the marks of life in a sinful world. Christians are not exempt from suffering, and you are no better than your neighbor, mentally ill or otherwise.

Face your fear. Does mental illness scare you? What are you afraid of—unpredictable behavior, violence, neediness, your own vulnerability? Admit your fears to God and ask him to help you minister through them.

Follow the Golden Rule. People with mental illness are human just like you—how would you want to be treated?

Be friendly. Smile and make eye contact. Say hi. Treat the person with dignity.

Be patient. Most mental illness is managed, not "cured." Many people suffer repeated resurges in symptoms. Everyone has good and bad days. Don't expect people to get over it and move on.

Acknowledge your limitations. If you aren't a mental health professional, no one expects you to treat mental illness. Do what you can—be a friend.

Ask families how you can help. And mean it—be willing to do whatever you can.

Ask how they're doing. Then listen. Most people avoid those affected by mental illness. Stopping and spending time with people tells them they matter—to you and to God.

Mobilize your church. See if your church leaders will start a support group, help church members pay for medications or hospitalizations, or host a NAMI training program.

Stick with them. When someone receives professional help, don't wash your hands of them. They still need friends, just like anyone else, and doctors won't give them the friendship they need.

Watching Our Words

Our words are powerful, for good or bad. We can bless people who have mental illness, or we can unintentionally reinforce stigma and rejection.

What not to say:

• Stigmatizing words like "psycho, "crazy," or "demented"

• Admonitions to "cheer up" or just "get over it"

• Accusations that mental illness is their fault, that they are demon-possessed, or they can "cure" themselves with more faith and prayer

What to say:

• Offers like "Do you need help?" or "How can I help?"

• Nonjudgmental empathy: "I'm sorry you're not feeling well."

• Clear statements of your boundaries: "I'm happy for you to call me when you need someone to talk to, but please don't come to my house without calling first."

Click here to read Amy Simpson's story of growing up in the shadow of schizophrenia in TCW's May/June digital magazine.You need to be a subscriber in order to gain access. To become a TodaysChristianWoman.com subscriber, click here.

Amy serves as editor of Gifted for Leadership, Marriage Partnership, and ParentConnect, and is a contributing editor for TCW. Her newest book is Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church's Mission (InterVarsity Press). You can find her at AmySimpsonOnline.com and on Twitter @aresimpson.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Amy Simpson

Amy Simpson is the managing editor of marriage and parenting resources for Today's Christian Woman and the editor of GiftedForLeadership.com. Connect with Amy at amysimpsononline.com.

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