When Care Is No Longer (A)Cute

'You'd go to the doctor for a broken leg, so you shouldn't feel bad if you need help for depression'.

I wonder if you've heard this phrase before. I love its thoughtfulness, and how it seeks to support those who need help.

The statement is an attempt to reduce stigma, and for that I am grateful.

But for a long while it didn't sit well with me, and I think I have only just recently worked out why.

A few weeks ago, we ran a meeting for the small group leaders of the church I attend. I took the opportunity to encourage the leaders to consider how best to care for those with mental health issues in their groups.

One leader, who practices as a nurse, helpfully noted that it can be difficult or daunting because mental illness is not an acute issue.

Not knowing exactly what she meant (I'm originally a teacher, and acute is a mathematical term in my mind!) she said that acute illness is one with an expected recovery date. In contrast, chronic illness is one that is ongoing.

And there it was. There was the flaw in the broken leg analogy.

When someone breaks their leg, they go to the doctor with an expectation that within 2 to 3 months they will be up and walking again. When someone acknowledges that they may have depression or anxiety, there is no standard timeframe for recovery.

This creates different dynamics for care within the church.

If someone breaks their leg, we may organise meal rosters, in-home care and organise people to drive the person to doctor's appointments. These are great, and we should do them. There is also an assumption that the need for this kind of care will come to an end.

When someone is struck with mental illness, we cannot import the same expectations. We may drive the person to appointments, help with meals and in-home care. And 2-3 months later, the need for that same kind of care continue. Suddenly love hurts a little bit more, and becomes that bit more sacrificial. Do we give up on the person at that point, or press on in loving them?

If we in the church are going to care for those with chronic illnesses (not just mental, but physical also), we need to reorient our expectations and timeframes. Depression is not the same as breaking a leg and it requires a different approach.

This is where our theology impacts our practice. God's love is enduring, it is patient. His grace is not sufficient until it gets too hard. His grace is ongoing, indefinite, for as long and as much as it takes.

If we are called to love God and our neighbour as ourselves, we are called to love like he has loved us. And that love is enduring, patient and willing to stand side by side for the long haul if needed.

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.
1 John 3:16-18