When a friend or family member experiences mental illness, it can often be a time of great confusion. What’s happening? What should I do or say? What should I pray for?
I want to give you some specific petitions to bring to God in prayer, but our attitude in prayer is as important as our words, so I want to encourage you to pray with hope, patience, and love.
Pray with hope because we are praying to the God of hope (Rom. 15:13), the God who encourages us to believe in his power when we and the sufferer feel powerless. God can fully heal mental illness, or he can give varying degrees of improvement, or he can give help in managing the condition better. As Jesus said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God” (Luke 18:27).
Pray with patience because changes for the better can take a long time, and we can easily give up praying when so little change is evident. Praying for someone with mental illness is more like a marathon than a sprint. It will develop your patience muscles more than most other spiritual exercises.
Pray with love for the sufferer rather than with anger and frustration. Praying with love and for love will be reflected in your relationship with the person, which will not only be good for you but good for your loved one also.
When God gives us the right spirit in prayer—the spirit of hope, patience, and love—that will usually result in the right petitions. Some examples include:
“Give them acceptance of their need, especially their need for help.”
Few people like to accept or admit they have mental illness. Whether it’s the imagined stigma, personal pride, misunderstanding of what mental illness is, or fear of the consequences of admitting it, most people, and most men especially, are reluctant to even consider they have a mental illness. Even when they get over this barrier, agreeing to seek outside help is an additional obstacle. We therefore want to pray that a suffering friend or family member would see their need, and especially accept that their need is so great they should seek help.
“Give them a willingness to talk openly and honestly.”
Another difficulty on the road to healing for our loved one is their unwillingness or inability to talk about what they are thinking and feeling. Again, in general, this is harder for men than women, but almost all of us struggle with this to some degree. We may be so confused, stressed, or down that we can’t even think straight, never mind talk straight. Or we may be afraid of sharing so openly and honestly. Or it just may never have been a practice in our culture or upbringing to talk about our inner life, our feelings, etc. However, being willing and able to talk about what we are going through is essential and a massive step on the road to healing.
“Give them a holistic team of helpers.”
Once a person admits their need and especially that they need help, who should they turn to? The doctor? The pastor? A counselor who is a Christian? A psychologist or a psychiatrist? A life coach? Depending on the severity of the condition, the answer may be “all of the above.” None of this will come together quickly, but over time we should pray for a team of helpers who will address the sufferer’s needs in a holistic way. Ideally our pastor will already have a team of Christian contacts with different professional skills that they can recommend to the person. Some of this may involve a bit of trial and error until the right people with the right skills are in place. But I would strongly encourage a team comprising a pastor, a doctor, and a counselor with Christian faith. This will result in a holistic package of care that will address the spiritual, physical, mental, emotional, and relational aspects of the person’s suffering.
“Give them an increasing sense of personal responsibility.”
Whether the sufferer brought his mental illness upon himself through bad decisions, or whether it was more genetic or circumstantial, recovery will always involve the person taking increasing responsibility for decisions and actions that will enable his recovery. This is often extremely difficult for a person with mental illness because they feel helpless, passive, weak, and may even have a degree of incapacity. That’s why we want to pray for an increasing sense of personal responsibility. This involves making good daily decisions about lifestyle such as sleep, exercise, diet, media intake, daily devotions, church attendance, fellowship, etc.
“Give them patience.”
Although sometimes mild to moderate mental illness can be significantly reduced in a few weeks with the right help, most times it takes many weeks—and even months—for “normal” to come into view. We live in a time and culture which expects instant results, and therefore the idea of waiting days, weeks, or months for major improvement is painfully difficult for most of us. So we want to pray that the person would be given patience while he waits for God to bless the various measures that are taken. One way to do this is to help the sufferer, and others like him, to look for and identify small improvements in various areas of life such as better sleep, more laughter, fewer panic attacks, shallower dips in mood, coping better with disappointments, etc.
“Give them submission to your will, Lord.”
Like all illnesses and disorders, mental illness, to some degree, may be part of our lives for a long time and even for the rest of our days. Perhaps it may be God’s will for us to suffer periodically with bouts of anxiety or depression. It may be our thorn in the flesh, an area of personal weakness through which God shows his strength (2 Cor. 12:7–10). If so, your loved one and others like him need help to bow to God’s sovereignty and accept his right to do what he wills with his own (Matt. 29:15). We want to fight for health and strength, but we also want to fight for humility and submission to God’s will.
“Give them someone to serve.”
When mental illness strikes, we can often become self-centered, thinking and talking only about ourselves. We get stuck inside our own heads and cannot see the needs of others around us. This is a vicious circle which only brings us further down. We will therefore want to pray that God would open the sufferer’s eyes to serve another person, which will not only help that person but will also help our loved one by getting him outside his own head and thinking about another, at least for a time. It will also give him a sense of worth and usefulness again.
“Give them new skills.”
As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:3–7, one of the reasons God brings pain and suffering into our lives is to train us to help others with similar afflictions. We learn more in the school of suffering than in any other school, and these lessons are not to be kept to ourselves but passed on to others. We therefore want to ask God to teach our loved one how to be a counselor and encourager of others who suffer with mental illness so that he can comfort others with the comfort with which he has been comforted by God.
“Give them insight into their sin and their Savior.”
There would be no mental illness if there was no sin. That’s not the same as saying that a person’s mental illness is a result of their own sin. It’s saying that our first parents’ sin is the ultimate cause of all mental illness in the world. Like physical illness, mental illness is part of God’s curse on humanity, a curse that God intended not just as a punishment for that first sin but as an ongoing education in the seriousness and awfulness of sin. Mental illness can therefore be a time of learning about how sin has wrought such havoc on us, disordering our bodies, minds, emotions, and souls. But just as mental illness also teaches us about sin, it also teaches us about our Savior who took on a frail and broken humanity like ours (although without sin) and experienced sufferings, such as the darkness of depression and the fear of anxiety (Matt. 27:46; Heb. 5:7), so that ultimately he could remove both the penalty and the consequences of sin. We would never choose mental or emotional darkness and terror, but he did so that he could both sympathize with us and save us. So we want to pray that God would use mental illness in the lives of his people to show them their wonderful Savior.
“Give them a hope of heaven.”
For the believer, mental illness can be like a little taste of hell on earth. As such, it can help us to see the horrors of the hell we have been saved from, as well as to long for the health and holiness of heaven, the place where all our diseases and disorders of mind, emotions, and soul will be immediately and fully healed upon entry—a healing our bodies will also fully participate in after the resurrection.
For more about caring for a loved one with mental illness, see A Christian’s Guide to Mental Illness: Answers to 30 Common Questions.