Sometimes it’s hard to know what to say, what to do, and how to respond when confronted with challenges. Often our first instinct is to avoid them, ignore them, or pass them off to someone else to deal with them so that we will not take up our time or increase our stress. Oddly enough, this is how many churches and congregants respond to people with mental health struggles. We don’t know what to say or how to help. The struggles seem above and beyond our experience or expertise. We refer them to speak to someone else, give them trite answers, avoid them, or let them know we’ll pray for them and move on. These responses remind me of the parable of the Good Samaritan.
In Luke 10:25-37, Jesus responds to the question by an expert in the law, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers by sharing a parable (30-35):
“A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side. So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. 35 The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’
For many churches, addressing mental health is comparable to the responses of the priest and Levite. They are confronted with a hurting person and decide to do nothing. Jesus didn’t explain the reasons for their choices. They were running late for a meeting. They didn’t have the best supplies to help. They didn't know how to help. They didn't want to help. He didn’t explain their choice because it didn’t matter. Yet because Jesus used a priest and Levite, one can conclude that considering their roles, it ought to have mattered to them.
Then along came a Samaritan who took pity on the man. Several aspects of the Samaritan’s actions are worth noting for mental health being addressed by the church. Following his example will help us respond biblically to those who struggle with mental health in the church.
OVERCOME PERSONAL BIAS & STIGMAS
Samaritans and Jews were not friends by any means. So for a Samaritan to take pity on a Jew meant he needed to overcome any personal bias against Jews. He had to see him as a man and a wounded one at that. The Samaritan was moved to show love to a person in suffering.
Mental health struggles have their own stigma in the church. While there has been some significant movement in a positive direction, there is still a way to go for churches and Christians to grow. Depression, anxiety, bipolar, and PTSD are not issues going away anytime soon for people inside or outside the church. They are not signs of a poor spiritual walk, and those who suffer are not necessarily suffering due to their own sin. They should not be looked down upon and ignored but shown compassion and help. To come alongside, we must first address any personal bias or stigma we hold in our hearts or minds.
VIEW THEM AS A SUFFERER
The Samaritan pitied the Jewish man. He saw him as a victim and not a perpetrator. He did not have thoughts of “You probably deserved it,” “You made a terrible decision coming this way,” or “You people always get yourselves in trouble.” Instead, he saw the Jewish man simply as one who needed help. He saw him as a sufferer.
As sufferers, we did not ask to suffer in the ways that we do. One person may suffer from a physical ailment, while another suffers from a mental health issue. They are sufferings one must deal with and respond to. Someone who struggles with either a physical ailment or mental health ailment can worsen things based on their response or by adopting a victim mentality. However, that does not mean their initial suffering is deserved and not worth our time and attention. They are not beyond the need for help or beyond the scope of the love of God’s people and the Word. We may not all be professional counselors able to walk professionally side-by-side, but we can offer more than a distant prayer and an occasional “hello.”
The Priest and Levite walked by the suffering Jewish man, who “belonged” to their people group. Yet while called to love their brother, they refused to. Why? We are not told. We can perhaps speculate that they had other things to do and other places to go. Or maybe they say the man’s needs as greater than their capacity or knowledge of medical treatment. Ultimately, they could not be bothered by another’s suffering, even though they could have saved his life.
Often, this same mentality is present in the church today. We don’t have enough time. We have other priorities that need to get done. We don't know enough about the suffering. Maybe we’re afraid of them becoming dependent on us and will take up more time than we can give, so we walk by and refuse to walk with the sufferer. Truth be told, these are good excuses we tell ourselves. We may be limited in our capacity for time, finances, or emotional energy to commit. Yet in the end, if we simply walk by and perhaps commit to the obligatory, “I’ll pray for you,” are we truly loving our neighbor and viewing them as a fellow sufferer, or are we viewing them as a time or energy sucker?
STEP IN HOWEVER YOU CAN
The Samaritan neighbor stepped into the Jewish man’s circumstance to address his suffering, but he could only do what he could do. He was able to bandage the man’s wounds and bring him from a place of certain death to an inn that was safe from bad weather or harmful people. He stayed with him the night, and then he had to leave on his journey. He promised to return to ensure the man was alright and pay the innkeeper for his time and attention.
The Samaritan had committed to helping this man, but his time was limited. It is likely his finances were limited. He could only do what he could do. He was not the ultimate savior of this man, but he could help the man at the time of his need. He was not a doctor who could heal all his wounds, but he could supply bandages. He could not give this man permanent housing, but he could cover the expenses at an inn for a little while.
The Samaritan man could only do what he could do at the moment. He offered what was immediately needed that would help bring about healing for the suffering man. This is often what we are called to do. How can we help someone who struggles with mental health issues? Perhaps it is a listening ear to understand the mental or emotional struggles. Perhaps compassion leads you to offer a welcoming hug, encouraging words, and time to get coffee together or share an occasional meal. After knowing their story and struggles, wisely and compassionately offer life-giving words of Scripture and help them draw near to Christ, their Savior. The greatest needs are not bandages but patience. Not a place to heal but a person to hang with. Not an ointment for physical pain, but the Truth and grace of God as an ointment for emotional pain.
Churches that wish to address the mental health struggles of their congregants ought to first look to remove the stigma of mental health. This can be done by preaching on mental health struggles like depression and anxiety. They can invite a local biblical counselor to speak on mental health issues and the Bible to help congregants recognize and address them. Pastors ought not to spiritualize mental health struggles (that is, make it all a spiritual problem) but acknowledge that as embodied souls, there are physical components to mental health struggles as well. Support groups can also be a positive step toward destigmatizing mental health struggles. Also, have a list of mental health resources available and partner with a local Christ-centered counseling organization.
At times, it may be appropriate to talk about your struggles with depression or anxiety and how you’ve overcome or battled them. Some pastors feel very uncomfortable with this, fearing people within the church will use it against them. In contrast, other pastors are reasonably honest about their struggles with the flock. Pastors will need to wrestle through these decisions. Yet, it is essential to normalize mental health struggles in the pulpit by talking about them not as sin necessarily, but as part of the human experience that God speaks into.
It is important to recognize that we are not the Savior and cannot save a person from their mental health struggles. Those who try to get overly involved and do not set appropriate boundaries in relationships. Yet, we can be a loving neighbor and do what we can do. We can help them. We can love them. And we can point them to the Savior, who is the One we also need.
What can we do as a church for those who struggle with mental health? Let’s be merciful neighbors and follow these words of Jesus and “go and do likewise”:
36 “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” 37 The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”
- Fred Jacoby, MA