In Efforts to Help, We May Actually Be Hurtful...
"He replied, "Because you have so little faith. Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." - Matthew 17:20
As Catholics we believe that in having just a little bit of faith, nothing is impossible for us. And that is true, God will walk us through some of the toughest times in life. Faith gives us hope for the journey, strength to persevere and even a glimpse of joy in the storm. Faith also tells us that God is in control and with that in mind, we leave it in His hands and let go of our worry as best we can.
There are different moments in which our faith might feel challenged, but in the end we can recognize God's unconditional love and presence with us in the journey. Suffering from a mental illness DOES NOT mean a person has no faith. It also does not mean a person does not trust God or that they are not praying enough. Mental illness is real. Mental illness affects every individual differently. Mental illness does not occur when you do not have faith. Anyone can be affected by mental illness, but it does not correlate to how strong their faith is. Yes, faith is a protective factor and can help support our mental health, but we must be careful in how we support our loved ones, suffering from a mental illness, within our faith communities.
What is Mental Illness?
Mental illness, or a mental disorder, is defined by the American Psychological Association as: "any condition characterized by cognitive and emotional disturbances, abnormal behaviors, impaired functioning, or any combination of these. Such disorders cannot be accounted for solely by environmental circumstances and may involve physiological, genetic, chemical, social, and other factors. Specific classifications of mental disorders are elaborated in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders".
"Mental illness is common. In a given year:
nearly one in five (19 percent) U.S. adults experience some form of mental illness
one in 24 (4.1 percent) has a serious mental illness*
one in 12 (8.5 percent) has a diagnosable substance use disorder" (Parekh, 2018)
There are different mental disorders a person can suffer from, and though multiple people may have depression or anxiety, each experience is unique to the individual. Each individual will experience the symptoms differently, there is no exact "cookie cutter" way to experience anxiety, depression, trauma, etc.
What can I say that is hurtful?
Often times we do not intend to say anything hurtful to our loved ones, in fact, we think we are being helpful to them. However, there are moments in which we try to be helpful that we can actually be hurtful instead. I remember a time in which I went through a period of very intense anxiety. I had just started my graduate school program, right after having completed my undergraduate, and I was still attempting to work full time. To say the least, I was having a difficult time adjusting to graduate school. A loved one of mine struggled with me and the anxiety I was feeling during this time. In his attempts to be helpful, he gave me bible verses, prayed with me, talked with me and listened to me, but it was difficult for him to understand. His attempt at being helpful, actually was hurtful without him knowing. He would say I needed to "trust God"or I needed "to pray". These were things that I was already doing, so I started to feel guilty as if I wasn't really trusting in God. I started to feel bad that I could not "just get over my anxiety". Again, this loved one had the full intention of helping me, but it was not helpful in the moment because I felt that I had no control over the anxiety I was feeling. With time, I was able to have more control and really rely on my faith for support, but in the moment I was not ready.
We often rely on our faith to help our loved ones by suggesting prayer or reminding them of how powerful our faith is, but by doing this we could be invalidating how a person feels. Sometimes we could even completely ignore what the person is saying and what they truly need in that moment.
Some things that are said and meant to help but can be hurtful are:
"You have to trust in God more."
"You're letting fear take over, have faith."
"You should pray more, it'll help."
"Think of all your blessings."
"You have so much going on, you should be happy."
"Everyone loves and appreciates you, you shouldn't feel that way."
When we relate a person's mental illness to their faith or to their blessings, we ignore how they feel and can cause them to feel worse. We all experience anxiety at some point in our lives, it does not mean we have no faith in God. We have moments of depression, but it does not mean we do not value our blessings. When a person suffers from a mental illness, it has nothing to do with their faith. Yes, as mentioned, our faith can be a protective factor in helping us to cope but we cannot assume mental illness is caused by little faith.
What can I say instead?
"How can I support you?"
"What is not helpful to you?" (sometimes people don't know how they can be supported, but they will know what is not helpful to them in the moment)
"Is there anything I can do to help you feel better?"
"I know it feels awful right now. It will get better."
"It's okay to not be okay. It's okay to be (sad, anxious, mad, scared, etc)."
"You are not alone, even when it feels that way."
Just listen and be present. This is possibly the most important and most helpful thing you can do, is to listen and to be present. You do not have to have the right answer, but by truly listening you allow a person to feel heard and not alone. Often we feel that by just listening we are not helping, but we truly are. Never underestimate the power of listening and being present.
"Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me." -Matthew 25:40