When You Can’t Help: Encouraging Others to Take Responsibility for Their Own Mental Health

Working with mental health and the church, there is so much work to do that sometimes it feels like we need to do and be everything. We need to help every person. We need to make things better. We need to support. 

But sometimes we can’t. 

Over the years, I have seen countless people start doing better because they have been heard and loved. But I have also seen a number of people who I could not do anything for. I wanted to do everything for them, but they did not want to do the work themselves. I wanted to help more than they wanted to work. 

Years ago, I sat in a meeting with my therapist. He was and is an incredible person who spent his days helping people heal and volunteered as a firefighter in his spare time.

One day I asked why on earth he would go out and try to save people at night after working all day to see people heal. He looked at me, and told me, “When I pull up to a fire, it’s not my house.”


I understood. He would pull up to houses engulfed in flames, and he would work to put out the fire. He cared immensely. But he was also able to put a layer between him and that house. He was pulling up to a task, and his job was to do his best to help with that task. If they managed to save the house, great. If not, they would do their best and know they had still done the job.  If he were to get incredibly attached to the work, he would get burnt out with the emotional weight he was carrying. By making the distinction that this was not his house, he was given permission to work diligently knowing his job was not to save the house, his job was to try to make a difference. 

Recently I spoke to a small group, and this question came up: “What am I supposed to do when I care, but the person I care about won’t do anything to help themselves?” 

This is a heavy and hard question, and often is close to home. This statement is a plea, “I love this person, I can’t get them to love themselves, and it is killing me.” I have wanted to shake people I know and care for and let them know that they are valuable and good if they could just step into it. 

At the small group I told the story of my old counselor because it has helped me so much. The same person asked about compassion. How could he have compassion if it wasn’t his house? 

Compassion means to suffer with. It is a divine action that calls out the place of the person being affected. It is feeling the pain of another and being with them in it. I cannot overemphasize the goodness of compassion. But what my counselor had talked to me about that day was not about avoiding compassion. 

If I try to live in the pain of another, I can do to demonstrate their value and my commitment to them. But what happens when they leave? Do I try to carry that person’s pain with me? And if I do, what benefit does it give the person I met with? Does it alleviate even an ounce of their pain, or do I just cause me severe emotional pain without any benefit to the person actually afflicted? Over the years, I have had to ask the question, “Is this my house?” And over and over, I have had to say, “No, this is not my house. I cannot carry this with me as I leave.”

What I have learned over the years is that I am happy to carry another person’s brokenness while I am with them. I can believe for them. I can advocate for them. I can help them, but only if they are willing to work harder than I am. I can’t make another person heal. I can’t save someone who doesn’t want saving. 

And no matter how much I can help, carrying their pain away from them is not an act of martyrdom or love. It is an act against my family and myself with no benefit to the other. As much as I care, unless this is actually my house, I need to leave the pain there. Taking it with me doesn’t do anyone any favors.