Early in my life, there were countless times I felt left out. Even when I was included, I often felt like I didn’t fit in. Because of this, I am drawn to the needy and disenfranchised, naturally gravitating toward anyone in the room who seems lonely. Many women leaders experience this as well. In my own loneliness, it feels safer to be the one reaching out than the one waiting for an invitation. And in many cases, this allows God to use me to encourage others who also feel lonely.
I saw God do wonderful things in and through me when I reached out to someone who struggled financially and had a shaky family of origin. In spite of her troubles, she saw herself as a new person in Christ with a chance at a new beginning. She dove into studying the Bible and had a million questions for me about life, parenting, relationships, and other practical areas of life. She’d had some bad breaks early in life and needed a bit of direction to move ahead, and I got to see God work when I reached out to her.
But this compassion for the lonely and misfits has also brought me face to face with some deep needs and wounds, especially the complicated needs surrounding mental illness. The problem is that for most of my life, I didn’t understand mental illness. I didn’t know what it meant exactly or how to help. These people were indeed lonely, but they required more than simply someone to talk to.
Fortunately, the American church has grown a lot recently in understanding and ministering to people with mental illness. Today there is a growing number of helpful resources, including Troubled Minds, written by former Gifted for Leadership editor Amy Simpson. I highly recommend reading this book (there is also a related Bible study).
Before these incredible resources were available, though, I met a woman I’ll call Lenore. At first Lenore seemed exactly the kind of person I enjoyed meeting with. She was friendly and appeared anxious to study the Bible and grow in her relationship with Christ. But after we’d been meeting for about a month, something shifted. I began to see a deep-seated anger toward God that spewed out on me and others. At first it was rather mild as she admitted her frustrations with a passage of Scripture or with another person at church. Soon, however, it escalated into out-of-control rage.
The first time it escalated to this level, I was talking to her on the phone. Someone had ticked her off, so she called me and began screaming at the top of her lungs. I was alarmed, but I tried to stay on the phone with her to calm her down. When it happened again the next day, however, I firmly told her I was going to hang up and that she could call me back when she had calmed down. She continued to scream as I put the phone down, and she called me back the next day to repeat the scenario. After that, I refused to take her calls. A little while later, I heard she was arrested for pushing a store clerk through a window.
My experience with Lenore was so traumatic that I had to change my phone ringtone because just hearing my phone ring filled me with anxiety, even if it wasn’t Lenore calling. I was so discouraged by the experience that I pulled back from reaching out to anyone who seemed needy. Suddenly, everyone seemed dangerous.
After a few months of this, I realized I needed to get over my fears. I loved reaching out to those in need, and I didn’t want my anxiety to stop me from a ministry I excelled at. This led me to do my research on mental illness. I wanted to learn the difference between those I could help and those who needed help beyond what I was able to give. To my relief, I learned that most people with mental illness are not dangerous. In fact, it’s very rare. But I learned that those who are dangerous need help that I’m simply not equipped to provide. In these rare cases, they’re better off connecting with a professional. In my research, I learned to look for these signs of dangerous mental illness:
Bizarre Speech Patterns
People who have a dangerous mental illness often begin to disconnect with reality. They may make comments that don’t make sense or that don’t relate to the topic at hand. Lenore would do this, but I just assumed she was not good at organizing her thoughts. As I look back, I realize she could converse normally most of the time, but if she began to get angry, it was as if something else took over. She lost all ability to reason and became unreasonably agitated.
Extreme Trouble Socially
All of us have trouble socially at times, but someone who has a dangerous mental illness goes beyond the shy, awkward stage. For example, when I was with Lenore in a small group, she began to verbally attack everyone in the group. It became so bad, I had to remove her from the meeting and take her home.
Identifies as a Victim
Many people see themselves as victims, but a person with a dangerous mental illness often takes this to an extreme. Everyone is against them, and they see conspiracy everywhere. Perhaps they feel the whole church is against them or the church staff is conspiring to make them miserable.
Someone with a dangerous mental illness will begin to lash out at others. Lenore began to threaten those she saw as persecuting her. As a result, I moved from wanting to reach out to her to wanting to protect those in our church from her.
History of Violence
When I found out about Lenore’s arrest for attacking a store clerk, I looked into her past and found out this was not her first arrest. She had been arrested periodically throughout her adult life for violent acts. If I had known about her past, I would have been more prepared.
Recognize Your Limitations
I’ve learned not to tackle more than I am qualified for. Because I’m not a trained counselor and I want to protect myself and those I love, I have stepped back from trying to tackle the difficult problems that come with a dangerous mental illness. Instead, I encourage the person to get professional help. I continue to pray for that person, but I step back.
Unfortunately, after my experience with Lenore, I was tempted to pull back from helping anyone. But certainly that’s not what God would want us to do. We must use wisdom to discern our own limitations in helping. At the same time, we still must have compassion for those around us. Let’s not lose the heart of Jesus: “When [Jesus] saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36).
Amy Simpson has written for Gifted for Leadership on mental illness and the church in the past.