As I write this, I am overwhelmed by writing about a day that the entire world honors: “World Mental Health Day.” Usually, our days of focus are limited to our own cultural, religious, or governmental days.
Just the words imply a daunting, impossible task that seems almost impossible to address, even as someone who is devoted to the ministry of helping people heal from emotional and spiritual wounds. How do we help the millions of children, adolescents, and adults who struggle with various mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, and hundreds of diagnoseable mental health issues? Maybe the best way that we can respond to “World Mental Health Day” is by focusing on the service of presence.
We live in an increasingly lonely world. In an attempt for people to stay connected through social media, the opposite has happened. All the latest research shows an increase in depression, addictions and suicide. To complicate matters, almost daily, children, adolescents and adults are facing horrible man-made and natural disasters creating great distress that leads to multiple types of mental health issues. Although the stigma around mental health issues has decreased in the last decade, there are still many who minimize and even shame people who struggle with mental health issues.
Years ago, I served as a hospital chaplain at a children’s hospital. One of my main jobs was to take care of families when their children died. It was an excruciatingly painful job, and one that was incredibly valuable in my lifetime pursuit to help suffering people. I learned very quickly one night while I sat in a room for hours with a single mom with her dead teenage son that sometimes there are no words that can help with the deep anguish of the soul. I learned that the greatest and sometimes only gift that we can give hurting people is the gift of presence.
As, in the Bible, Job’s friends showed us, before they messed up by opening their mouths, that sometimes we need to “sit in the ashes” with people and be with them in their deepest moments of grief and pain. For those who are believers, being present in pain also brings Christ’s heart right into the midst of suffering. So how do we grow in the service of presence?
- We Must Understand Suffering
Our society does not like pain. We work hard to not hurt. Running to people who hurt takes great courage and knowledge. Purposefully study suffering and mental health issues. Find a trauma-informed training to attend. Follow organizations, such as Grace Alliance to learn more about ministering to people who have mental health disorders. Watch Dr. Nadine Burke Harris’ Ted Talk on the damage from adverse childhood experiences.
- Learn How To Stay Present With Suffering
One of the greatest gifts that we can give people who have mental health issues is to simply be present with them in their pain. Hurting people long to know that someone cares about their pain. Often, hurting people need a hug more than they need words. I often think about how Jesus handled Lazarus’ death. Although Jesus knew that He was about to raise Lazarus from the dead, he first cried with His beloved friends and empathized with their pain.
- Be Careful With Our Words
Suffering that manifests as mental health issues is not something that we can handle in a spiritually trite way, for believers, saying things like “I will pray for you” and walking away or quoting a scripture such as “all things work for good.” Although Scripture is always true, we need to be careful with using Scripture as a way to try calm our anxiety because we don’t know what to say or do rather than really helping the suffering person. Those who are believers in Jesus, have the greatest opportunity to influence the world with the good news of the Gospel by choosing to be present with those who are suffering. Watching Brene’ Brown’s video on empathy vs sympathy is maybe the best image of what the service of presence looks like. As followers of Christ, we need to learn how to reflect His heart by entering dark places of suffering and being present and empathetic.
By Michele Louviere, LMFT, LLC
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist with over 25 years of counseling experience. Has served on the American Association of Christian Counselors (AACC) Board for Grief, Crisis, and Disaster and now serves as AACC’s Project SUSTAIN Director.