(Newsletter September 2014)
Dr. Agnes Ip
Caring for someone struggling with mental health issues is always a challenge. These challenges can arise based on how direct or indirect the person is. Those needing help may approach others directly in an upfront way to ask for help while others may act more passively and even feel ashamed for needing help. Before helping someone, we have to really understand how the person you are caring for may feel about receiving help. We need to be intentional about communicating openly, asking them how they feel about being helped. We don’t want them to feel ashamed. Ask them what they need and don’t need to clarify their expectations. When people are too passive, they often reject help. With these people, their safety is always our greatest concern. The most important aspect of helping someone with mental health struggles is to make sure they are not hurting themselves or hurting others.
You may find that at times, those receiving help from you may blame you for what they are experiencing. Some people with mental illness can be overwhelmed by negative thoughts, so we must not take their comments personally. In essence, they need your help but they don’t want to get help from you. Sometimes it’s like a love-hate relationship. They may be constantly ambivalent, with an “I want you, I don’t want you” attitude. They want to prove that they can handle a situation themselves. So when we work with someone like that, we always have to be one step ahead. We need to set boundaries to avoid unrealistic expectations by understanding what you can and cannot handle and gently communicating to that person the reasons behind those limitations. At the same time, we need to provide help, knowing that we will not get anything in return. It is not healthy to expect the person you are caring for to solve your problems. You can disclose a little of what you’re going through to help normalize their conflicting thoughts and feelings but never for the intention of solving your problems, even if you have been caring for this person for a long time and feel that they owe you something.
For those helping others, it is important that they have some supervision or at least a peer group for support. Churches can also provide some sort of mentoring to support those who are helping others, in order to make sure they are not helping in ways they cannot handle. Sometimes people you help will have similar experiences to you but since we are all different in some way, we need to focus on the other person’s needs and be careful not to project our own personal experiences onto the other person. But when what the other person is saying is reminding you of your own painful experiences, you need to work those feelings out with your own counselor. Forming teams to help certain individuals may be the best way to help someone struggling with mental illness. The church should also work closely with some mental health professionals, referring their counselees to professional services and in more serious cases, following up with the counselee as they get professional help. Lay counselors play an emotional and spiritual supporting role and are not called to treat someone like a mental health professional is trained to do.
Confidentiality is also of huge importance in this kind of ministry. Though you as a care person cannot tell others all the details about a person you are caring for, you still need to be able to ask for prayer and advice from a supervisor or your own counselor while not using actual names or unnecessary details. It is important that you find the right person to talk to about these issues, not just any person. If you share openly with just anyone about how frustrated you are with the person you are caring for, you will do that person harm when they find out what you are saying about them and all your help will actually turn into a negative.
It is important for you to be aware of your own emotional limitations. Do not let anyone you are caring for push you beyond your ability to actually love them. At the same time, as a caring minister, it is not right for you to just to abandon the person you are caring for. It is okay for you to take a break, but let them know when you will come back. If you want to stop the helping relationship, you need to refer them to someone else and follow-up to help with the transition process. If you have your own ambivalence toward the person you are caring for, you need to be aware of it and find your own counselor to help you work out your own frustration. Also, be sure to be up-to-date on legal issues surrounding counseling and confidentiality.
Ultimately, when working with someone with mental health struggles, the goal is not to have that person dependent on you, though they might be for a while. The ultimate goal for them is to depend on God and take care of themselves, thus gaining some independence. Though most of those involved understand this goal, it can seem impossible in the middle of counseling. A peer counselor and counselee may be dancing back and forth in regard to how dependent the counselee is on their counselor. We know this can be very difficult, which is why training is necessary for those ministering in this way. Caring ministry workers ultimately need to know how to appropriately address mental health issues. In this regard, Presence is here to help. We know how mental health issues can affect one’s spirituality, interpersonal relationships and daily functioning. That is why we are able to provide consultations and training to ministers in these kinds of areas. On the 5th of October, 2014, we will be hosting our 11th Annual Presence Anniversary dinner where we will talk about biblical standards for helping those struggling with depression. We welcome you and your team to join us.