Another really wise post from the lovely Sharon Hastings. Thanks, Sharon!
We all know the scenario. It’s coffee time after church and people are milling around and chatting. Someone asks, “How are you?” and – regardless of what is going on in your life – you smile brightly and say, “Fine, thanks.”
Perhaps there is someone in your church and you know that they are struggling with mental health issues. Maybe they haven’t been at church for a while. Maybe they’ve even been in hospital. Yet when you approach and say, “How are you?”, their reply is just like yours: “Fine, thanks.”
You really care, and you would love to go deeper, but it’s hard to get past the mask and the “Fine, thanks”, isn’t it? Here are a few of my thoughts on how to go about it.
First of all, practise being honest when people ask you how you are. You’ll realise how hard it can be! It’s also a good idea to pray and commit your conversation with the person to God. Ask him to help you to be open, and pray that you will be a blessing to them.
Opening up is hard, but I think it is really powerful when you let your own ‘mask’ fall first:
“Phew. I’m glad of a coffee. I’ve had a rough week. Life’s a bit of a struggle, isn’t it?”
This gives the person a sense of being ‘in it together’. When someone opens up with me, I find it quite disarming. I’m grateful to be trusted with their problems and I might well share mine too.
You might also drop the “How are you?” altogether and try starting the conversation differently:
“I love the colour of your scarf. Where did you get it?” or “Did you see the rugby yesterday?”
If you can simply get chatting, it may lead to the person revealing more of themselves naturally.
There are also ways of saying “How are you?” which show that you understand that things are difficult, so it becomes less likely that the person will just say “Fine, thanks.” When I talk to friends who have mental health issues, I often ask:
“How have you been managing this week?” or “How are you coping at the moment?”
You might even be upfront about what you know about them:
“Hi. I was sorry to hear you were in the hospital. How have you been doing since?”
Another tactic is to take the conversation elsewhere. Sometimes a church foyer is not a ‘safe’ place for me to offload. There are too many people who might overhear, and I fear losing my composure and creating an embarrassing scene. You might say:
“I’m heading to try out that new coffee shop on Main Street – would you like to join me?” or “I’m on my own for lunch today. Would you like to come back to my place for some soup?”
In the course of your chat over coffee or soup, you might get a chance to open up about your life a little, and that might encourage the other person to share too. But be aware that it can take time to build trust. You might meet up several times before someone is ready to talk freely about how they’re really doing.
Of course, if you want real answers to your “How are you?”, you need to be prepared to deal with them. Do you know what to do if someone says: “Actually, I self-harmed last night”, “I’m hearing these voices commenting on everything I do and they’re scaring me”, or even, “I’m not sure if I can go on any more”? It’s a good idea to think about this in advance.
Whatever strategy you choose, getting past “Fine, thanks” is always worth it. When I realise that someone is interested in me as a person, rather than as a ‘project’ or an oddity, and that they are going to stick around, it means so much to me and supports my recovery. In time, I’ll drop my guard:
“Well, it’s actually difficult right now. My meds got increased and I’m just exhausted.”
Choosing to invest in the life of someone with mental health issues is to bless Jesus himself. He said that, when he returns, he will say to his people,
“For…I was sick and you looked after me…Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:36,40)
But there will always be days when it’s just too much to go into detail. It’s okay if someone does just say “Fine, thanks” – don’t press them too hard.
And remember that sometimes “Fine, thanks” is simply the truth…and that should be celebrated!