by Evan Owens
We all want to help our friends who are struggling with a mental health challenge or healing from a traumatic experience. But knowing what (and what not) to say can feel totally overwhelming. If you’re like me, you worry that you might say the wrong thing and trigger symptoms that make the situation worse. Afterall, you aren’t a certified counselor or medical professional. Sadly, too many of us end up missing the chance to help those we love because we are afraid of doing the wrong thing.
Over the past nine years, I’ve had thousands of conversations with people who have endured chronic illness, mental health illness and post traumatic stress. I’m not a certified counselor. I’m just like you– an everyday guy with a heart to help others. And after thousands of conversations, I’ve learned that there are three common mistakes that Christians make when trying to help their friends and family. But before I share those, here’s the good news:
These mistakes are easy to avoid.
When I first began meeting with hurting people, I was overwhelmed. I remember sitting in my car, nervously rehearsing in my head the upcoming conversation. I felt totally unprepared and under-qualified. But nonetheless, I went in ready to help! I did my best, but honestly, the conversations were often awkward and aimless.
I asked stupid questions, I tried too hard to relate to their experience by sharing personal stories that weren’t even in the same realm of hardship. I didn’t ask some good questions in fear that I might bring up a painful memory that they didn’t want to discuss. The conversations were not disasters, but they weren’t masterpieces either. Looking back, I dramatically over complicated them. I’d like to spare you from following in my footsteps, so here are the three most common mistakes I made:
1. I didn’t wait for an invitation
Newsflash – sometimes people can put out the fires in their own lives. They don’t always need me to rush in and save the day. This was a hard lesson for me to learn. My intentions were pure, but my tact was way off base. The moment I saw a fire in someone’s life, I would run towards it ready to help. Have you ever been on the receiving end of help that you didn’t ask for? It is uncomfortable at best, if not downright offensive.
Those of us in leadership positions, whether it be leading a Church, a small group or a prayer team, are constantly bombarded by people with problems. This can train our brains to assume everyone wants our help. In those early days, I never once asked the person I was meeting if they would like me to join them in their journey of healing. I just assumed they would since I am such a charming individual!
Tragically, in a few cases, they had to tell me they weren’t ready for my help or they just no-showed my meetings. This was a hard lesson, but one I had to learn. Now, I simply ask for permission and wait for an invitation before running towards the fires in other people’s lives.
2 . Instead of leading with grace and love – I led with advice
Advice without grace sounds like judgement. Have you ever been on the receiving end of ungracious advice? Seeds of advice that aren’t planted in the soil of grace won’t produce any yield. As the number of people I was helping began to increase, I found myself over-extended. Instead of 2 hour coffee meetings I had to shorten them to 45 minutes. In other words, I needed to get to the point faster. Less rapport building, less listening and more advice giving. Like a spiritual vending machine, they’d put in a token of their time and out would come some advice. Shockingly, in many cases God redeemed my lack of humility and allowed my advice to help them in their situations, but it felt like commodity advice.
Leading with grace and love sounds like this, “I want you to know I love you and care about you. No matter what you choose to share with me (and what you ultimately choose to do), I want you to know that I am in your corner.”
Leading with that kind of commitment and support changes the entire atmosphere and opens up the conversation. Too often, we lead with advice that isn’t received. Save yourself some time and energy, don’t give advice until you are certain they understand the source from which it is coming.
3. I tried to fix their problem for them
John 15:1 says, ““I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.”
Sometimes I want to be the gardener. I want to prune the unruly branches and make the plant look healthy.. I have learned that when we do this, we risk burnout and compassion fatigue. Our role when helping those who are struggling with trauma or mental health challenges isn’t to fix them. Our role is to help them grow through the suffering as best we can by ensuring that they are connected to the true vine: Jesus We can encourage them, pray for them, love them, weep with them and rejoice with them, but we can’t heal them. This is what bearing one another’s burdens really looks like..
For many living with mental health challenges or coping with trauma, there will be good days and bad days. Symptoms will ebb and flow. Others will come into their lives for a brief moment to offer unsolicited advice on how they would manage the situation, but few will join them for the long journey.
Learn from my mistakes: helping someone dealing with chronic illness, trauma or mental health challenges isn’t about “fixing” their problem as much as it is about carrying that problem with them. Wait for an invitation. Lead with grace.
Adopting this mindset will eliminate many of the all too common mistakes the faith community has made in this area such as bad theology, denial that mental health struggles exist and so on. The mistakes, while still present, are rapidly becoming less common as our congregations become more informed.
As you continue serving your community, overcome those feelings of inadequacy and simply be a friend first. While institutions and medical professionals diagnose and treat, they don’t sacrificially love people very often. That’s where you come in.
Evan Owens currently serves as the Executive Director of REBOOT Recovery. He is certified in military ministry and has personally facilitated trauma recovery groups for over 350 combat veterans and military spouses. REBOOT is a non-profit that helps veterans, first responders and their loved ones to heal from the moral and spiritual wounds associated with service-related trauma.