It can be hard to know what to say to someone who may be having mental health difficulties, or know if what you are saying the right thing. I have adapted a conversation framework to make it more accessible to church settings. Below, I will go through each point and how it might look in different church settings.
Ask - Listen - Affirm - Reassure - Move - Signpost
A - Ask
We are all comfortable with the "Hey, how are you?" "I'm fine thanks, how are you?" greeting. Sometimes, you can tell where someone may not be fine, particularly if you know they have been going through a hard time. The hardest step might be saying: "Are you sure you are fine? I'm happy to talk."
At church, this might be easier at the end of the meeting, where there is less time pressure. Ministry time lends itself to asking deeper questions and spending time in conversation. In small groups, it can be hard to have one-to-one conversations, but I've seen where splitting down into smaller 'accountability' groups or leaving time for prayer can create space for conversations.
Remember; asking about mental health difficulties, or even if someone is having suicidal thoughts, is not going to make it worse. If anything, asking may provide a lifeline for someone, a sense of hope that someone is there with them.
L - Listen
Don't worry about knowing what to say or not having the right words; just listen. Feeling listened to is a huge part of opening up in conversations, which can be helped by positive body language. Eye contact and a relaxed posture show that you are listening, as well as the odd vocal response. Try and avoid jumping in with a personal anecdote, advice or talking about someone else with similar difficulties. What worked for you or someone else may not work for them. The more you listen, the better you can hear what they need and what is best going to help them.
Sometimes at church, there can be a lot going on, kids running around, music being played, so don't be afraid to ask for clarification or repeat back what they are saying. This still shows you are listening, and can show that you are interested and want to get a better understanding of their difficulties.
A - Affirm
Recognise what they are going through and offer emotional support and encouragement. It might be that you reflect back what they are saying, such as "It sounds like you are really struggling with different parts of life right now" or "This is clearly a difficult time for you at the moment". You don't need to know anything about specific mental health difficulties, just acknowledge where they are right now. Particularly with children and young people, emotional and mental health difficulties can be overlooked due to hormonal changes or assumptions that they are too young or it's not as bad as it seems. Affirmation can bring hope, making someone more likely to open up and get the support they need.
R - Reassure
This goes hand in hand with affirm. No one is ever alone, but sometimes we need reminding of this, particularly in challenging and difficult times. We can forget that it is normal to feel anxious or angry or hurt as we process situations, especially when facing persistent symptoms of mental health difficulties. Sometimes people also need reassurance that they have done the right thing talking to someone. It's not uncommon for a little voice in the back of the mind to cast doubt and place blame on seeking help. Phrases like "Thank you so much for telling me" or "You've been so brave sharing this with me" can both affirm and reassure someone.
In church settings, I would hope that speaking positively into someone's life is a norm, as we are told:
Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building up the one in need and bringing grace to those who listen.
If you are unsure that what you are saying is right, just encourage them and love them.
M - Move
This can apply to a couple of situations:
1) You need to move location.
This may happen at any point in the conversation, not just towards the end. It might be clear from the beginning that a person needs to be in a quieter area, especially if it's a loud busy church or you could be overheard easily. This can also be useful if it looks like they are in crisis, as you can signal to someone (church leader, small group leader etc) to join you for extra support. If there's no quieter space or separate room, just moving to a corner or closer to a wall can create a sense of privacy. This can be more challenging in a home setting, but could be achieved if necessary.
2) You need to move the time of the conversation.
If someone initiates a conversation with you that you don't have time for, don't be afraid to ask to move it to another time. Ask if it is urgent, listen to what the issue is, affirm and reassure them that you do want to talk and arrange a time. If it needs urgent help, find someone who can have that conversation with them. Sometimes as an event draws to the end and people start leaving, that can cause a 'now or never' point, more commonly with young people. This can be awkward if it's at the end of the evening, or if you need to be setting down/heading off somewhere. Be clear about how much time you have and stick to that, arranging another time if possible.
No matter how much time you have, as part of the reassuring process, make an effort to mention the last point...
S - Signpost
Having more than one form of support is encouraged, regardless of mental health difficulties or not. We all have different things that we do to process information, relieve stress and wind down. Relying on one person or one coping strategy can become unhealthy quickly, which is why signposting is important. There is lots of support out there, most of it free and online:
- GP is normally a first port of call for accessing support
- Mind, Rethink & Mental Health Foundation have online resources
- Pastoral support in the church or other church leaders
- Elefriends is an online community for people to ask questions and share stories
There are also sights for specific needs, such as Young Minds and Student Minds, Beat and Papyrus. Many of these websites have resources for both people who need help and those that are offering support. I Need Help has some more options, including for urgent support.
These options are here so you don't have to feel the pressure of knowing everything yourself, particularly if you are pressed for time.
You cannot be and do everything for someone.
Don't over burden yourself by trying to meet someone's needs, especially when there are specialist services out there. Make sure that you get the support you need too, whether that's bringing another leader alongside you or taking time out to unwind.
The main idea of this framework is to keep conversations simple.
Ask if someone is really alright.
Listen to what they have to say. Show this through positive body language.
Affirm and uphold them by acknowledging where they are at.
Reassure them that they are not alone, we all have difficulties and support is available.
Move if necessary to create a better space for talking, or to a time where you can dedicate your focus and attention to them.
Signpost to other services. Make sure they are aware of other people they can talk to or sources of information such as their GP or Mind.
A conversation framework handout is in development for churches, so if you are interested, please contact me via social media or leave a comment below.