How to help a friend with mental illness

September 10, 2018

“I just don’t know how to help.”

Whether I’m speaking on the subject of mental illness, talking with someone who is concerned about a friend, or reading an email, I often hear from people who care deeply about others and want to help ease their suffering. But they don’t know what to do.

It’s possible you’re in this very position. You care about someone who is living with emotional or psychological pain, and you wish you could offer something that would help, but you’re not sure you can make a difference. Maybe you live with the misconception that only trained mental health professionals are qualified to provide any kind of care. After all, it seems like you’ve tried everything you can think of, but you’re pretty sure it hasn’t made any difference. Or, perhaps you believe the only way to help is to solve the problem and make the person feel better for good. Since you haven’t been able to do that, you’ve decided there’s nothing you can do.

The truth is, as with other complex troubles, there are many ways to help. Yet, when it comes to mental illness, many of us respond with fear or avoidance. This, in turn, compromises our creative abilities. Once we start thinking beyond the solutions most of us are not qualified to provide, we begin to realize we can do far more than we guessed.

So to prompt your own thinking, here is a small collection of ideas for helping a friend with mental illness:

Care for practical needs. I preach this all the time. Frankly, it’s way too easy for us to forget that people who live with mental illness (including those with serious, highly disruptive disorders) are fully human. As humans, we all have 90 percent of our needs and wants in common. So you already know how to help with most of what people need. They need food, shelter, safety, community, money, maybe medicine, and more. Begin by meeting these needs as you can.

Listen. Like the rest of us, people with mental illness need to be heard. They need to know they matter. And talking to an attentive, caring audience can be tremendously healing. You don’t have to offer solutions or wonderful, wise advice (or any advice at all). Just listen.

Draw near, not away. When people are dealing with something we don’t understand, we’re tired of hearing about, or which makes them not-so-fun to be around, our natural tendency is to draw away and to put space between us and them. The same thing happens when we assume a person’s experience is too private or shameful to ask them about. Don’t make the mistake of reinforcing stigma and shame by pulling out of a friend’s life just when he or she needs you most. You aren’t the solution, but you can be a powerful vehicle for God’s healing grace and the hope that comes with knowing you’re not alone.

Deal with your discomfort. It’s normal to feel uncomfortable, or even fearful, when confronted with something we don’t understand. It’s only natural to feel nervous around people who don’t act or think the way we expect them to. But, we can question our reflexive reactions by asking ourselves whether we have true reasons for fear. If not (and most of the time, honesty will compel us to admit we are not in danger), we can choose to set aside our discomfort and focus on loving the person we’re with.

Let them be the way they are. For many people, it really is difficult to grasp the idea that we can help without fixing the problem. Yet this is tremendously important. We can share in the sufferings of others, help to lighten the load, and offer the comfort of our presence without fixing anything. In most cases, our efforts to fix will ultimately fail, damage trust with the people we’re trying to help, and might do further harm. Help your friends find the healing help they need, and recognize you have a different role to play—the role of a true and faithful friend who loves them as they are.

Adopt a learner’s mindset. Too often, we approach people as if we have all the answers, when we may not even know what questions they’re asking. If we haven’t walked in their shoes, we don’t know what they’re up against. The more you understand, the more you can offer a truly supportive response. So adopt a learning posture, ask questions, and keep an open mind as you learn from your friends.

Research options for treatment and support. Mental health care is one of those things most people don’t know or think much about until they need it. When you need mental health care, it’s generally not a great time to face the dizzying world of options, restrictions, and methods of access. Sometimes it’s impossible. One of the most helpful things you can do is some legwork for your friends, helping them navigate the mental health care world and find out what doctors, counselors, hospitals, treatment centers, and other resources are available to them.

Help them access treatment and support. Once you’ve identified some options for your friends, you can help them get started. Go to support group meetings with them. Schedule counseling appointments on their behalf. Drive them to the doctor’s office. Take them to the hospital, and stay with them as long as they need you. Again, taking these steps can be extremely difficult or impossible for people who are in a mental health crisis. When you help them access the resources they need, you send a strong message that you want to be their friend when they may feel unlovable.

Get support for yourself. You may want to go to a support group on your own. If you’re helping someone else through crisis, it will take its toll on you as well. In addition, you may get some education and ideas from others who are offering support in similar situations.

Help them see their resources. You are not the complete or only answer to anyone else’s needs. You should not be the only resource they can access. Mental illness is a dirty liar, and it will tell people they have no one when, in reality, they have a village. It will tell them God has walked away when he is close. It will say they can’t do what feels hard. So you might need to repeatedly remind them of the people and other resources that are present in their lives. Encourage them to draw on those resources rather than try to face it alone.

Draw boundaries. Love and support your friends in the context of awareness and acceptance that you are not the answer to their problems. You can be part of the solution, but you can never be the complete package of what anyone needs. Chances are, they are not the only people who need you. So take care of yourself, honor your limitations, and fulfill your other commitments. You will be a better helper, for longer, if you do.

Speak the truth in love. Mental illness never tells the whole truth, and you can be a voice of truth in contradiction to its lies. When depression says a person’s life isn’t worth living, you can counter that lie with reminders of that person’s purpose and value to you and to God. When overwhelming anxiety tells people they can’t survive what scares them, you can remind them of the strength and courage they have to push through fear. When psychosis, paranoia, or delusions reframe reality, you can help people know what is and is not real. But always do so in love, gentleness, and compassion. Arguments won’t get you very far, and they won’t say, “I love you,” to your friends.

By now, I hope you’ve noticed there’s nothing on this list that lies outside the capabilities of the average human being. If you are human, you can do these things. And there’s much more you can do, including ideas I haven’t thought of. Let’s help each other love our friends well.

This article originally appeared here.

Amy Simpson

Amy Simpson is the award-winning author of Blessed Are the Unsatisfied: Finding Spiritual Freedom in an Imperfect World, Anxious: Choosing Faith in a World of Worry and Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission (both InterVarsity Press). She’s also an editor for Moody Publishing, a leadership coach, and a … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24