5 ways to help our loved ones with addiction and mental illness

June 8, 2018

Mental health issues, addiction, and the spiritual struggles that are so often entangled in the two have been a part of my family’s life ever since I can remember. Learning to love someone who wrestles in such drastic ways is hard, raw, terrifying, and frustrating. Yet, it has also made me richer in compassion, understanding, humility, and the experience of God’s mercy and grace. There are no easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions that will magically fix our loved ones’ lives. Instead, as I’ve learned over the years and with plenty of mistakes made, there are ways we can try to wrap our arms around them and point them to the Savior who is acquainted with and can shoulder their sorrow. Though I’m no expert, I hope what some of what I’ve learned can help others in the church. Here are merely a few of those things that I’ve gleaned and am still seeking to grow in:

1. Don’t abandon them: I remember a talk I heard about helping addicts that said we usually, as a punishment, try to remove the one thing those with addictions need most: community. Though it’s appealing and situations vary, isolating someone who wrestles in whatever way is generally a terrible idea. I did this. I threatened this as a “consequence.” And I’m ashamed of it now. Yes, staying with someone who battles addiction or severe mental illness can be difficult and might upend our lives, but putting myself in their shoes, I can’t imagine how I could continue on if I was the one who was cut off from help. The Lord can heal in miraculous ways, but sometimes he doesn’t, and it’s impossible to understand right now. So, we should be in it for the long haul with our loved ones. Our God has not abandoned us, so how could we give up on others?

2. Remember they are a person, not a project: This truth hit me like a ton of bricks during a hard, prolonged season with one of my loved ones. I was spinning my wheels, trying to figure out how to help this person. Nothing was working, I was hurting and getting angrier, and the things I was learning and praying didn’t seem to do anything. I realized I was treating my loved one, overall, like a project, not a person made in God’s image. I’m a fixer and have prided myself on being able to reference this Bible verse or that resource to help with whatever problem you’re having—because I believe in the power of the Word. But while my instinct may have good in it, it’s not all that helpful, and frankly, really frustrating to people I love, especially those who struggle with mental health. I came to realize that situations are more complex than I know. I had the tables turned on me during a season where I was the one who was battling with anxiety. I’ve learned the value of being quick to listen, slow to speak, and assuring my loved ones that I am all in, no matter what.

3. Recommend and foster help: The circumstances, causes, and needs are many, so, as Christians who aren’t specific professionals, we shouldn’t be quick to speak of things we don’t know and offer to diagnose someone’s problems with our “expertise.” Instead, we should point our loved ones to a variety of resources: doctors for a physical exam, counselors, mentors, pastors, facilities, and more. And we should be willing to help them get what they need, whether it’s money for medicine, a friend to accompany them to counseling, a phone call to a doctor, or a visit while in rehab. Some of my suggestions to my loved one were helpful, and others were terrible, but the Lord used them all in this person’s life in ways I can’t understand—ways that, in this situation, have led to thriving. We need to be humble and patient in our suggestions, but we should also, as much as we can, make sure that someone who desperately needs it gets help and a chance to get well.

4. Fight for their life and their soul: The moment we were purchased with Christ’s blood, we ceased to be our own. We’re in a spiritual battle for souls, and the stakes are high (Eph. 6). We simply can’t retreat to our comfortable lives and expel anyone who takes too much effort. Those grappling with addictions and mental health often take a whole lot of work that doesn’t fit in a neatly packaged box. But that’s not what we’re called to, anyway. When someone can’t fight for themselves and is tempted to think life is too hard to live, we have to try our best to stand in the gap and shoulder their burdens (Gal. 6:2). We share the transforming gospel with those who are non-Christians, and we remind those who are Christians of the good news that saves and continues to sustain them. It doesn’t mean we will be able to see all people saved, whether physically or spiritually, but it does mean we will leverage our lives in an intentional way for those who are hurting, showing them that they matter and displaying a picture of the unconditional love of the Father.  

5. Always, always hold out hope: Many people with addictions or mental illness are in an incredibly hard war for hope. They need to be reminded that while they still have breath, there is always an opportunity for new mercies. They need to be pointed back, over and over again, to the Savior who stands with outstretched, nail-pierced hands. They need us to take up the shield of faith for them and extinguish the arrows from the enemy that are pelting them day in and day out. As Christians, we are the people of hope—a hope through Christ that does not disappoint—and we should always be ready to carry this salve to our loved ones whose wounds run deep.  At the end of the day with my loved one, I tried to repeat that this person wasn’t beyond help, saving, forgiveness, or love. The same is true of us who don’t face the same battles. We were once without hope in this world (Eph. 2:12), and what a privilege it is to be able to carry a real, lasting hope—a hope with a Name—to our fellow sojourners.

I’ve come to see that some of the biggest blessings in my life, in ways that put Romans 8:28 on display, are my loved ones who have taught me what it is to persevere in love. I would never wish their struggles on them, and I pray for their healing and rejoice in what the Lord has already done. There are truly no easy answers or shortcuts. Yet, God is not wasting their affliction, though it can seem like that’s true. He is using their stories in ways that we cannot comprehend. And it’s my privilege to get to stumble along beside them and point them continually to the One who’s standing in front of us, holding out his arms, inviting us to lay down our burdens and rest in him.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, help is available. Reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling @800275TALK (8255). Trained counselors are available 24/7.

Lindsay Nicolet

Lindsay Nicolet serves as the Editorial Director. She oversees the day-to-day management of our online content from the Nashville office. Lindsay completed her Master of Divinity at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. She is married to Justin and they have a daughter and a son. Read More by this Author