In my experience, Latter-day Saints love to help. Ministering to others is built into the very framework of the Church and our doctrine. Our people are well-trained to step up, and I love that about us.
While serving others is a blessing, it can also stretch us. I once lived with a friend whose anxiety and depression became very intense over the course of a few years. This woman is someone I sincerely love being friends with. She is kind, smart, funny, and one of my favorite people to hang out with.
It broke my heart to watch her mental health spiral to a point where she would weep for hours at a time and not be able to leave her room. She was seeing a mental health professional and had a circle of support, but still she struggled.
In my efforts to help her, I also began to struggle. I worried about her constantly and felt drained after speaking to her. I didn’t want to stop trying to help—this was my dear friend! So, we carried on in our usual routines.
Some days were better than others, but most of the time I felt scared and relatively useless. I wanted to serve but felt unequipped for this situation. Perhaps you have been in a similar circumstance with someone you love.
I’ve learned a lot about mental health in the years following that experience. Most recently, I had a conversation with two licensed therapists with Family Services, Derek Hagey, PhD, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and Jenni Turley, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. I asked them questions I’ve long held about how to minister to those struggling with their mental health.
Here are the highlights of what they told me. I hope it will help you feel empowered to minister to those in your circle and feel the Savior’s love for you and them more abundantly.
How do you determine when someone you love is struggling with “ordinary” mental health challenges and when it’s more serious?
We all experience feelings of anxiety, depression, and other negative emotions. Derek gives a simple answer to knowing when those feelings are going beyond normal levels:
“There are really three main factors we look for as therapists: duration, severity, and functioning. If it’s lasted a long time, if they are starting to have suicidal thoughts or other thoughts that are more dangerous, or if they are not able to function in their normal life—those things would denote that this is getting more severe,” he says.
He also adds that when people have struggled for a long time, they often develop ways to mask their struggles. So, while we can strive to be aware of the needs around us, we don’t want to put undue pressure on ourselves to recognize a struggle that someone is carefully hiding.
Jenni adds that if someone has tried to improve their situation on their own and hasn’t been able to see the change they want, that is another sign it is time for outside help.
How can we lovingly suggest that someone might need help? What are the phrases we could use? And where would we tell them to look?
One of the first things Derek mentioned is the fact that it can be hard to know what to say. Most people are not trained therapists who can offer treatment. And while we need to not put pressure on ourselves to be the therapist, we can point those we love to the help they need.
“The number one thing we can do is speak from a place of love for that person. That’s where I tend to tell people to start, with stating that you care about them,” Derek says.
The next step Derek suggests is to describe the behavior that concerns you, which once again shows that you care and are aware of them.
For example, “I’ve noticed you haven’t gotten out of bed in a few days and that worries me,” or “You seem more tired and down than you usually are, and I care about your well-being.”
Then you can ask direct questions to determine the severity of their situation, including directly asking if they are suicidal if you feel it’s necessary.
“Don’t beat around the bush, because that makes it even harder to talk about,” Derek says.
Then, whether this is the first time you’ve talked to someone about their mental health, or it is an ongoing conversation, we can express empathy by acknowledging how hard life can be. But one thing to be careful of while expressing empathy is to not turn the conversation to our own lives.
“I like to tell people not to get too caught up in making sure that you share what works for you. [Instead] say that things have worked for you and there’s lots of different things that people can try. [Tell them that] one of those key things, if you’re really struggling, is to see a professional, someone that knows how to help you process through these pains,” Derek says.
“Try not to give too much advice to your friends. Instead, focus on caring about them and helping them seek out those things that will be helpful for them, not telling them what to do.”
To kindly suggest that someone seek out professional help, you could say something like, “I really feel like this is a time where we need to get you to work with someone who can help you.”
In the meantime, Jenni suggests the following resources:
- The individual struggling can find resources for their situation on the Church’s Life Help website.
- The Church’s Counseling Resources webpage can help leaders and others caring for those struggling with their mental health. This site includes potential things to say in various mental health circumstances to better understand and support an individual or family.
- Another resource for those seeking to help is the discussion guide, “Ministering to Others During a Crisis.” Use this handout to facilitate a discussion on how as a family or a support system you can minister to others during difficult times.
- This article from the government is another great resource: “Supporting a Friend or Family Member with Mental Health Problems”
- And finally, this video can help you have conversations about suicide prevention with your family based on the principles of ask, care, and tell: “Suicide Prevention: How to Help”
What are helpful things to say to someone who is struggling? What are non-helpful things to say?
“Help them see that there’s no shame in their struggle,” Derek says. Calling out to people that life is hard, and offering validation that we all struggle can be helpful things to say.
Jenni adds that rather than assuring people that you know what they are going through, it is better to say that you’d like to understand what they are going through. Then we ask questions about their experiences and listen intently to their answers.
We should also remember that not every conversation about mental health is going to go smoothly—and that is totally OK.
“You don’t have to have the perfect thing to say. It usually is awkward saying, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed that you’re not yourself. What’s going on?’” Jenni says. “The main thing you want to make sure is that they have the support that they need available to them.”
It is also important that not every conversation you have with someone is about their mental health. Try to include fun activities in the relationship as well.
“Sometimes the greatest support is just doing things with other people and not having to think about the struggles. Being able to go and have a laugh with some friends makes a huge difference,” Derek says. “You don’t have to try to play a therapist; sometimes it’s just being a friend.”
When someone has confided once that they are struggling, but then doesn’t seem to want to talk about it again, how can you bring it up in natural ways?
Checking in with people after an initial conversation about mental health is important, but it doesn’t always happen naturally.
To help foster conversation, Jenni advises to be conscious of when someone may want to talk; they may not want to have that kind of personal conversation in the foyer at church or right before work, for example.
Instead, we could approach them in a more private setting, such as through a phone call or asking if we could come by for a visit. However we choose to do it, following up is very important.
“Sometimes when people share something personal, they may worry you’re not going to want to be their friend anymore,” Derek says. “So, reaching out in a very simple way and saying, ‘Hey, I was thinking about you, and I wanted to check in with you and see how you’re doing. I would love to continue our conversation’ helps them feel like you do care. And that they aren’t being rejected for having problems.”
If it continually feels difficult to talk to someone about their mental health, you could try asking them what could make it easier. Or it may be that they would be more comfortable talking to someone else. You could ask them if there is anyone they’d rather talk to, and then help them contact that person.
“[Assure them] that you just want to make sure they are OK,” Jenni says.
It’s also important to remember that we don’t control a person’s response to our offers of help, and our efforts don’t need to be perfect.
“Conveying that you’re there to help them whenever they’re able and willing to accept that help is really important,” Jenni says. “Treat yourself with the same grace and patience that you treat them with. It’s not easy to try to help somebody through a mental health condition. Take the time to be gentle with yourself and all of the emotions that come up, and all of the thoughts of, ‘Oh, I didn't do this exactly how I wanted to.’ It’s never going to be perfect—how you execute something in trying to help somebody with these issues.
“You might not feel that it’s a ‘win’ because you weren’t able to help them with something specific, but maybe the ‘win’ in that situation is that you were able to communicate that you care and that you noticed that they’re struggling. And hopefully, when they’re able, they can reach back out.”
What are some of the discussion starters we can have in our homes and in our friend groups to make talking about mental health normal and natural?
We can start with our own lives: bring up what you struggle with yourself. Even mentioning that you felt stressed, anxious, or depressed can be comforting for someone to hear so that they know they aren’t alone.
“Even if you can say, ‘I’m having a hard time coming out of this, or ‘I have just felt like I’m in a funk for a while and I am really struggling to change how I’m feeling’ opens up for others to discuss their mental health too,” Jenni says.
If someone wonders why you are talking about mental health more, you can explain that mental health is something that tends to affect almost everybody and that you’d like to be better about talking about it.
Another way to make talking about mental health more normal is to tell people when they’ve helped you through something.
“Expressing how other people have impacted us positively is a huge help in continuing that [mental health] dialogue,” Derek says.
And it doesn’t need to dominate a whole conversation. For example, it could be as simple as thanking someone for going on a walk with you because it helped you de-stress.
“How often do we express to our friends that we really appreciate them? If it’s not often maybe that’s something we can work on,” Derek says. “That helps with our mental health because 1) we’re expressing gratitude, which helps us connect to other people. And 2) when they hear that they’ve made a difference in our lives, they feel more connected to us.”
It’s important to recognize early on that talking about mental health won’t always be easy, but we shouldn’t let that stop us.
“It’s kind of like sharing the gospel,” Jenni says. “If we share the gospel and it gets rejected, it’s harder for us to open our mouths the next time. But the trick is to continue to open your mouth, even if the message might not be popular.
“Same with mental health. If you open your mouth, and it feels like that wasn’t super well received, we might have the inclination to not talk about mental health again. But we have to push past that and say, ‘Yeah, it’s hard to talk about mental health. And it might not always feel well received. But the more I talk about it, the easier it’s going to be. And even if it didn’t feel like it worked out great this time, I’m going to keep talking to others about mental health.’ That’s how we make a difference over time.”
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