One of my first experiences working as a counselor was also one of my most difficult. I was given an assignment to talk a young man off an emotional ledge. He was dealing with one of his darkest nights with regards to his mental health.
The good news is that he was able to turn things around, but it took time, effort, and a community. I do, however, remember the hopelessness I felt that night. I was grasping for the best tools I had at that moment and felt like I was hardly scratching the surface of his needs.
Since that night, 13 years ago, I have accumulated much more experience and education on how to better understand mental health and support someone struggling with it. Since people are more likely to reach out to a friend or family member first when faced with anxiety, depression, or other mental health struggles, knowing what steps to take can help put someone on a path toward healing, peace, and support.
What is mental health?
“Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” –Matthew 13:8
There are many ways to explain what mental health is, but one of the metaphors I find most helpful is this:
“Mental health is like a garden.”
The better the quality of the soil, the better things will grow. If mental health is the soil, then a person’s efforts, relationships, passions, and responsibilities are all seeds that are planted in that soil.
This is a very hard thing to do alone.
Those who are in a mentally sound place will be able to make better connections between the different parts of their life, and they will more seamlessly be able to be the person God ordained them to be.
However, sometimes there are rocks, pests, or thorns in the soil, which may represent traumatic experiences, neurochemical disorders, damaging relationships, and/or other things.
So, a person struggling with their mental health is a person that faces the ongoing challenge to find ways to cope around their struggles and function productively in their day-to-day life.
This is a very hard thing to do alone.
Everyone needs a community, and for the person struggling with their mental health, you are a part of their community. Let me personally thank you for being there for that person.
In order to empower your work in their lives and help them overcome their mental health struggles, I believe the following five steps will be especially helpful to you on this journey:
- Know the warning signs
- Seek help and a community
- Honor their past
- Support them right now
- Secure their future
1. Know the warning signs
It’s important to know the warning signs to look for in case the person you are supporting needs more intense and immediate intervention.
IMPORTANT: If/when you notice any of the warning signs below, call for help immediately! Get qualified and competent professionals involved.
- Threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- Talking or writing about death, dying or suicide
- Preparing to end their life (i.e. storing up medication, or putting affairs in order such as giving away belongings or making a will)
According to Rethink.org
, “Signs that something is wrong can sometimes be more difficult to spot. Such as a cheeriness which may seem fake to you. Or they may joke about their emotions. Such as saying something quite alarming that is disguised as a joke. Don’t ignore your gut feeling if you are concerned about someone. Some people won’t be open about how they are feeling.”
Again, at the hint of these signs or your gut feeling, call for help immediately. Here are some resources you can turn to:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255
- Youth Mobile Crisis Unit (Broward County): 954-677-3113
- Adult Mobile Crisis Unit and Walk-in: 954-463-0911
- School leader: principal, teacher, small group leader, administrator, etc.
- Church leader/ministry: Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale encourages those who need biblically-based help with an immediate crisis to call 954-977-9673 or personally come to the Reception office to meet with someone who can help
2. Seek help and a community“For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it.”
You have to count the cost and consider what toll this work will take on you, your work, and your family. Begin by asking yourself questions like:
- Do I have the education and skill level to navigate this?
- Do I have enough emotional availability?
- Do I have enough grace for this?
- Do I have enough compassion?
The danger here is trying to take on a role you may not be called or equipped to take on, which can sometimes lead to more harm than good.
You have to count the cost and consider what toll this work will take on you, your work, and your family.Here is the good news:
in the areas we lack the resources to help, there is always another person or persons that is better suited to take on that role. When you connect someone to a community — like a caring friend group, accountability partners, a support group or therapy services — three things will happen:
- The work will be easier because everyone will share the responsibility of supporting that individual.
- You will ensure the best outcome for them because everyone will play the role they are called to play.
- You will allow yourself to stay healthy because their problems will not overwhelm you and become your problems as well.
3. Honor their past“Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
There is so much honor in learning to sit in pain with another person. No solutions, no redirection, just the act of being present.
One of the more powerful impacts carried by people going through hardship is not what people around them did or said, but the fact that those people stood with them. This is exactly what Job’s friends did after he had lost his wealth, children, and health: “When Job’s three friends, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite, heard about all the troubles that had come upon him, they set out from their homes and met together by agreement to go and sympathize with him and comfort him. When they saw him from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
You can sit with them in the pain, but they are the only ones who can resolve those past experiences.
At the same time, I encourage you to NOT take on the responsibility of helping them make sense of the past. This is probably one of the most significant causes of their struggles today. In this case, I would encourage them to work with a professional clinician or counselor to guide them through those historical mine fields. You can sit with them in the pain, but they are the only ones who can resolve those past experiences.
4. Support them right now“Dos and Don’ts” give us boundaries to help us feel more confident in navigating unpredictable moments. Here are a few to help you navigate your day-to-day conversations.
✓ Take them seriously.Dont’s:
✓ Rephrase what they are saying, using their words to show that you understand what they are saying.
✓ Listen for feelings not just facts; this will allow you to be the emotional support they need.
✓ Give them your undivided attention.
✓ Warn them early on about the kinds of issues (suicidal ideation, drug abuse, dangerous behaviors, etc.) that you will have to share with others to get them the support they need.
✓ Bring support and a community around them to create more stability for them.
✓ Disclose your own journey of struggle IF it is a way to connect with them and show you understand the journey they are on.
✓ Share Scripture that highlights grace, journey, and process.
Do not patronize or belittle their emotions.✕
Do not punish them for how they feel, although you may need to redirect their behaviors.✕
Do not make promises to keep secrets if things take a turn for the worse.✕
Do not make their struggle about you (i.e. bring up a time where your struggle was worse than theirs).✕
Do not disclose your own struggle if you are going to require them to fill your needs and focus on making you feel better.✕
Do not preach at them to make them feel like they are wrong for feeling the way they feel.
5. Secure their future
“Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” –James 2:15-16
Hope anchors us to the process of growth, but healing comes through stable actions over time. In other words, yes, the person you are partnering with needs to know that things will be better one day, but they also must practice some of the things that will help them heal today such as:
- Changing their environment
- Changing the relationships that are damaging them
- Creating consistent and safe routines
- Offering them healthy experiences
- Modeling trust in your relationship with them
- Changing the things that consume (what they watch, eat, listen to)
- Giving them opportunities to contribute toward things that are meaningful to them
- Encouraging their creative expression
While you are leading them toward a brighter future, I encourage you to try to focus on making their today better than yesterday.
With these five steps, you will be better equipped to help people struggling with mental health challenges. You can help ensure the best outcomes possible by playing the role you are best equipped to play.
By playing the role you are best equipped to play, you can help ensure the best outcomes possible.
Lastly, on top of taking these practical steps, we should also remember to intercede on behalf of these individuals, praying that the Lord would work through you, others, and through His divine intervention to bring about restoration.
Edvardo Archer is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist that practices out of Fort Lauderdale, FL. He is passionate about building bridges that allow families and individuals to thrive and not be bullied by their circumstances. You can learn more about him and the work he does in the community both in person and virtually at www.apfamilycounseling.com.