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How to Be a Supportive Friend to Someone Who May Be Struggling With Their Mental Health
Having a friend who struggles with their mental health can feel daunting at times because though we may care, we just don’t know how to help. We might try to put ourselves in their shoes and think of what we would do, but this often does not work, because we don’t know what it’s like to be in their shoes. We want to guide them to trust in God, but we recognize that they may need more support than we know how to give. This month we launch a series on mental health, with this past weekend particularly focusing on depression. Pastor Dave’s message video and notes can be found here. We looked at the example of Elijah and how one of the key ways God lifted Elijah out of depression was by giving him a friend, Elisha. Many of us want to be like Elisha, as we are ready and willing to help, but we just need some guidance on how to do this well. Here are 4 key things we can do to be a supportive friend when someone in our lives is struggling with their mental health.
1 – Listen and learn.
One of the first, most important things we can do to show support, is to listen, ask questions and don’t assume we know what our friend is going through, even if we think we have gone through something similar. It’s not the time to be solution-oriented, but to simply be a listening ear for the friend to share openly and authentically to. By doing this, we are communicating that we are a safe place for the person and that we care. If we find ourselves in a position where we can’t seem to relate with the person at all, depending on what the friend is sharing, we may need to take time to learn more about things like grief, depression, anxiety, etc. By taking time to learn what our friend is going through, we will grow in empathy and compassion about what they are sharing with us.
The Bible tells us in Colossians 3:12, “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience” (NIV). These characteristics don’t come naturally to anyone, which is why the Apostle Paul tells us that we need to “clothe ourselves”. As children of God, who have made Jesus Christ the Lord of our lives and who have the Holy Spirit within us, we have the ability to ask the Holy Spirit to grow the fruit of the Spirit in us. What is unnatural to us, is natural for the Spirit and so we must continue to ask the Holy Spirit for help with this. A really important thing we can do while listening is engage with the Holy Spirit, asking Him to help us listen well and to give us the patience and love to do this more than once.
We may need to take time to listen on more than one occasion, but we might be surprised how much comfort and healing can take place just be allowing someone to share what they are going through. The process of sharing with someone who is a safe place and who doesn’t judge what is being shared, allows the person to feel valued, heard, and known. We may never fully know what strength and boldness it took to share their story with us, and so consider it an honour to listen. Some phrases that may be helpful to say and that also communicate we are listening are the following: “Thank you for sharing with me”, “That sounds really challenging”, “What was that like?”, “What made you feel this way?”, or “Thank you for allowing me to understand what you’re going through.”
2 – Encourage and pray.
After having listened with compassion with the help of the Holy Spirit, there may be opportunities to encourage our friend in the moment or at a later time with a kind word, a prayer, a Bible scripture, a personal story, a song, a sermon, or another resource. This needs to be done with care, as we are not attempting to fix what their feeling in order to move past their current state. Healing takes time, and freedom from mental struggles is a process. Prayerfully offer the encouragement as an option for them to receive. Other times, if we have already established a good relationship with this friend, we might actually be someone who could encourage them to seek more specialized help, like a counsellor, or to continue seeing their counsellor and doing the things they have begun doing, like spending time with God on a daily basis, exercise, following doctors recommendations, engaging in things they enjoy, coming to Life Group, eating and sleeping well etc.
1 Thessalonians 5:11 clearly states, “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing” (NIV). The general goal here is to let the friend know that we are here for them. We are on their side and desire to see them be as healthy as possible, mentally, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
3 – Connect and be patient.
Beyond listening, learning, encouragement, and prayer, we can practically show our support by purposing to connect with our friend. This could be by offering to do an online video call to chat, pray, play a game, or do an exercise video together. Other ideas might include a walk outside, doing a sport together, going shopping, or dropping off their favourite food. The Word of God tells us, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Hebrews 10:23-25 NIV).
Taking time to connect one-on-one will take planning, scheduling, and intention, but it is ultimately our love and care in action. It’s not enough to say we care about our friend but never do anything to show it. We might also find that our friend may not want to connect when we reach out. If that is the case, giving them the space they desire is good, but be sure to reach out again at a later time. It’s helpful to know if this friend has others trying to connect with them as well, or if not, work together with other friends in common to ensure the friend is being cared for and connected with. It’s easy to forget or to give up when connection seems challenging, but be patient and continue to pray for the work of the Holy Spirit to continue in their lives. We may not know this now, but our persistent desire to connect and show care is more needed and appreciated in the long run than we think.
4 – Know your limitations and receive rest.
Finally and not of least importance is knowing the role we have in our friend’s life. We are not professionals or doctors, counsellors, or specialists. We are a supportive friend. This is our limitation and so we must recognize when our friend needs more support than we are able to give. It is wise to receive wise counsel from someone who has more experience with friends who struggle with mental health. We must never feel like it is all up to us to help our friend or that we must give ourselves to a place of exhaustion.
Jesus himself understood the need for rest, as we read in Mark 6:30-31, “The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught. Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest” (NIV). Jesus himself, often went away to be with God the Father and to pray. He is our example of where our strength, wisdom, peace, love, joy, and guidance come from – in the secret place with our loving Father God. It’s also helpful to have a trusted person we can talk to about what we may be going through as we help someone else, to receive guidance, wisdom and prayer.
Being a supportive friend to someone who may be struggling with their mental health will require that we listen and learn, encourage and pray, connect and be patient, know our limitations and receive rest. The call of God to be a supportive friend ultimately comes from the great commandments we find in Matthew 22:37-40, “Jesus replied: ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (NIV). I hope and pray that we can all be like Elisha, who was a supportive friend to Elijah in 1 Kings 19. On our own strength, this is very challenging, but with the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us, all things are possible (Matthew 19:26).