ACT: Guidance for relating to friends with mental health concerns

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This is the second article in a two-part series. Read part one here: 5 Things Small Churches Need to Know About Mental Health.

Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness of empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”[ref]Philippians 2:1-4. Scripture taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1995 by the Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.[/ref]

This passage forms the basis for the acronym ACT which summarizes basic guidelines for relating to friends with mental health concerns. Mental health issues are real and prevalent. Churches—particularly small churches—have the capacity and calling to serve as healing communities for those who suffer by acknowledging the physical and spiritual realities of mental health and illness. The ACT acronym has two key words for each letter:

Acceptance Advocacy

Compassion Care

Talk Teamwork

Let’s see what is meant by each of these words.

  1. Acceptance & Advocacy

The embrace of the broken is the heart of the gospel. When Jesus began His ministry he specified his purpose: bring good news to the poor, freedom to captives, healing to the sick, liberty for those oppressed and God’s grace extended toward all.[ref]Luke 4:18-19.[/ref] This was Jesus’ consistent message and mission: embracing the hurting and helpless. He sought out the suffering and marginalized, the social outcasts and lost causes.

If we’re going to follow Jesus, we must follow him in accepting those who are hurting.

Those suffering from mental health concerns need communities that accept and walk alongside them on the pathway to health and wholeness. Just as Jesus loved, accepted and embraced us while we were broken, we are called to love, accept and embrace others in their brokenness. Acceptance opens the door to help and healing.

But acceptance is not passive. Just as God doesn’t accept us and leave us broken, we should not simply accept someone and then stand by watching them suffer. Acceptance is about love and love is active. People suffering from mental health problems need an advocate to come alongside them to speak and act on their behalf. Advocacy comes in various forms.

First, advocacy is demonstrated through understanding their struggle and communicating with them in a loving way. This requires that we educate ourselves about mental health concerns and commit ourselves to speaking the truth in love.

Second, advocacy means speaking-out on their behalf. By informing others we invite more people into the support process. Those suffering from mental health concerns are often unable to speak for themselves. We need to become voices for the voiceless. This form of advocacy is also demonstrated through prayer. Just as Christ intercedes for us, so we should intercede for those who suffer.

Third, advocacy is shown through connecting people with resources they need. For those suffering from mental health problems this may simply be a support community, but it may also be counselors or medical professionals including psychologists and psychiatrists. Once these connections are made, continued advocacy is often necessary to support them in necessary lifestyle changes.

Advocacy is all about bearing each other’s burdens, and thus fulfilling Christ’s law of love.[ref]Galatians 6:2.[/ref] It’s about acknowledging that none of us are independent and we rely on others to survive and thrive.

  1. Compassion & Care

Compassion literally means “to suffer with/alongside”. God calls us to weep with those who weep.[ref]Romans 12:15.[/ref] People suffering from mental health concerns need others to enter their world and experience the pain they’re feeling. In this shared experience of pain we’re reminded to be careful and sensitive and we are filled with an urgency to find hope and healing. Like acceptance, compassion is not passive.

Sincere compassion leads to comfort and consolation of those who are hurting. Our own experience of pain has a purpose. The purpose is that as we experience God’s comfort, we’ll be able to share comfort with others who are hurting.[ref]1 Corinthians 1:3-4.[/ref] Our process of healing empowers us to be, “harmonious, sympathetic, brotherly, kindhearted, and humble in spirit.”[ref]1 Peter 3:8.[/ref]

Compassion is demonstrated through care. Care takes many forms, but the more practical, the better. Sometimes we’re intimidated by caring for those with mental health concerns because we feel inadequate or overwhelmed. But remember, you’re not responsible for the comprehensive care of your friend. You’re responsible for “friendship care”, i.e. the care that friends give each other. Friendship care for the mentally ill usually takes the form of activities like providing a ride, cutting the grass, assisting with financial needs, or providing a listening ear. Small things matter and they make a big difference.

  1. Talk & Teamwork

Communication is key to any relationship. Through communication we understand one another. Through communication we give strength and encouragement. Communication should be a conduit for God’s grace.[ref]Ephesians 4:29.[/ref] Sometimes this communication comes in everyday conversation. Other times it comes through Bible study, support groups, or professional talk therapy.

Through communication we discover how to be a part of a team that serves those suffering from mental health concerns and how to include them in teams that serve others. By teamwork we mean two interconnected things. Within the Body of Christ we are all called to minister and be ministered to. God has created us to be interdependent upon one another. Every Christian has something that other Christians need, but every Christian lacks something that other Christians provide.[ref]1 Corinthians 12.[/ref]

While those suffering from mental health concerns need teams of believers supporting and ministering to them, that is only half of the equation. The other half is that those suffering from mental health issues are gifted ministers as well. They need to be equipped as members of teams that demonstrate love to others. Teamwork is the dual process of ensuring that members of the church who suffer from mental health concerns are ministering and being ministered to.

Churches can become healing communities for individuals suffering from mental health problems. This process begins by committing ourselves to acceptance, advocacy, compassion, care, talk and teamwork. May we ACT like Christians in relationship with those who are brokenhearted.

Israel Steinmetz
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Israel Steinmetz is dean of Academic Affairs for Artios Christian College and pastors New Hope United Church in San Antonio, TX, where he lives with his wife Anna and their eight children. In addition to teaching, Israel is a prolific writer, having co-authored four books and contributed over fifty feature articles to the Bible Advocate. Committed to lifelong learning, Israel holds a Bachelors in Pastoral Ministry, a Master of Divinity, Master of Arts in Theological Studies and is pursuing the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary.