Helping a Friend through the Darkness of Depression
Editor's Note: Depression has been a part of the human condition since the fall. Sin has created all human brokenness. Throughout the scripture, we see God’s people struggling with this reality, such as David (Psalm 22:2, 42:11, 32:5), Elijah (1 Kings 19), Jeremiah (Jer. 20:1-11), Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), and Paul (2 Cor. 4:7). We know from Psalms 32 and 51 that unrepented sin can lead to depression, affecting body, soul and mind. We learn from David that healing from sin-caused depression can come with confession and repentance.
We also know that there are other contributing factors besides personal sin that cause mental health problems, such as brain diseases. The subject of mental illness is complex and still being researched (as can be seen by the recent study disproving the theory that it is caused by the "chemical imballance" of low serotonin levels), but the purpose of this article is to equip individuals to walk alongside a depressed friend on their path to healing.
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Your friend is in the emotional crisis of depression. This is their darkest moment. What do you do? How can you help?
As with many uncomfortable situations, our first reaction is to flee, to ignore, to hope someone else tends to the issue, or to wait for it to pass. However, every example of Christ shows just the opposite; He was present, fully engaged, always had time for people and deeply cared about the individual. We can do the same.
How does this look with a depressed person? I will speak practically here, having seen depression from the “front row” for most of my life.
Here are some things you can DO for your friend suffering from depression:
Above all else, if you suspect your friend or family member is depressed, strongly urge them to see a doctor. There are many causes for depression, or what might look like depression, and they absolutely must be evaluated by a doctor. This doesn’t necessarily mean a psychiatrist in the initial stage (many people are hesitant anyway and don’t know where to start), but at the very least their general physician, internist or (for women) gynecologist. These doctors treat depression every day and most are willing to provide care for the emotional as well as physical needs of their patients. If their doctor doesn’t have this attitude, they need find one who does.
Let’s say they have visited their doctor and have been placed on medication. Encourage, encourage, encourage. Many medications are very helpful but take some time (usually several weeks) to show full effectiveness. Not only that, it may take a while to find just the right one, which will require a great deal of patience and perseverance. Reassure your friend they’re on the right path and that results will come. Check in with them regularly and ask open-ended questions, such as, “How are things going?”
Open-ended questions don’t have a "yes" or "no" answer—it requires the speaker to do a little more searching before answering. In addition, open-ended questions are intentionally vague so the speaker will need to be a bit more forthcoming with the answer. If you ask, "How are you today?" the person may respond, "I'm fine," or something brief like that. If you say instead, "How are things going?" they are forced to think about their answer. That question could be answered in a much broader way—like, "Not so well," or "Ok, I guess," allowing the person asking the questions to go a little deeper, probing whatever clues are given. Just mainly avoid questions that are easily answered and ask questions that require a bit more thinking before answering.
Along with that, an experienced counselor is critically helpful. They are especially helpful if it is one that shares a similar world view and does not counsel against the individual’s moral beliefs and values. Many times, talk therapy alone will help someone make big strides in healing. Wounds cannot be healed unless they are opened and cleaned, and an effective, compassionate therapist will provide this care.
Now back to you as a friend. Realize you cannot replace the two things that I’ve just mentioned - medical care and professional therapy. You are a friend, but even in an illness such as depression, friends still play an important role in restoration and healing.
Just a few practical ways you can help:
Listen. Let them talk. If they have a “safe” person to talk to (in addition to their therapist), it can take the emotional pressure off them for the moment. Everyone feels better after having a good talk with a friend, especially when they’re feeling depressed. Even for a non-depressed person, it is emotionally healthy to share thoughts and feelings with someone else.
Allow them to talk without judgment. Even if what they are saying is a result of their damaged emotions and flawed thinking and doesn’t make much sense, don’t judge. Just let them talk. Never tell someone they shouldn't feel the way they do, or that what they feel is wrong, or that what they are doing, saying or feeling is contrary to Scripture. They feel badly enough already. In the future there may be a place for that, but in the depths of depression, a person needs love, reassurance and support, not judgment. Allowing a person to feel heard and understood without being judged is a powerful way to make them feel loved.
Sometimes your friend or loved one may say, "Maybe it would be better if I weren't here." A person who actually says this is or has probably already contemplated ending their lives, in which case a professional is needed. However, if you are faced with this, I would say to immediately ask the Holy Spirit for guidance as to how to answer. Sometimes depressed people say this to see how the listener will react. Sometimes it is said for attention. Sometimes it is seen as a way of control over their own lives. But having been faced with this as a friend, I lovingly remind them how much they mean to so many people and how suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I also (gently) throw in what a selfish act it really is, that they are only thinking of themselves (if you're in the pit of depression, this is common) and that a permanent scar will be left in their family. "God's mercies are new every morning" (Lam. 3:23) and He is always faithful. Continue to check in daily until you feel this person is out of the ditch. However, allow me to firmly add at this point: I am not writing this from the perspective of a trained counselor. Please consult other resources if you even suspect a friend is contemplating suicide. It leaves a wound within the family and circle of friends which will never completely heal.
Warning: this can be exhausting. Faithfully love your friend in the Lord's strength and not your own.
Realize you can’t fix it. Whatever problems are wrong in their life, you can’t fix them. Whatever issues are causing pain, you can’t repair them. You can listen and reassure, but you can’t fix.
Understand that true depression is an illness, and illnesses must be treated. You can’t just “get over” heart disease or diabetes. Similarly a depressed person can’t just “get over” being depressed. They would love nothing better, but it doesn’t work that way. It is a medical and emotional issue that may require long term treatment. Walking with someone during this time is a valuable gift. You can see the light – they can’t. And you can't make a blind person see what they can't see, but you can help guide them.
Engage them. A depressed person will stay home all day every day if they could, and some do. Invite them to lunch or coffee. This may take a few tries, but don’t give up. They need to be with others and need the stimulation of being out and about. Being out in nature is especially healing. On the other hand, if you sense your friend is having a particularly bad day and just can’t talk, that’s ok. Let them have their space and call back in a couple of days. You can send texts, emails or cards, too. Knowing they are loved will help, even at their most unlovely.
Encourage the person to take care of themselves. Ask if they’ve done anything for themselves recently. Promote self-care. Many depressed persons have no idea how to care for themselves. They are perfectly capable of caring for others, but self care is another issue. Maybe even sit down together over coffee one day and help her make a list. What things make them happy? What do they enjoy?
Just a note here: Self care is the knowledge, ability and willingness to take care of yourself. Women are especially prone to neglecting themselves, and in particular, women in the caring professions—and in this I would include the ministry. We care for others quite well, but taking care of ourselves is another issue altogether. Many women put themselves at the bottom of the list of care. For years I thought taking care of myself (I don't mean physical/health care, but some fall into that thinking as well) was selfish. I thought spending time doing something like getting a massage, going on an outing with friends, pampering myself, sitting around reading, sitting on the porch listening to the birds sing, walking through the mall just window shopping, going to a museum, etc. was a waste of time and selfish. Then I finally learned: IT IS ONLY SELFISH IF IT HURTS SOMEONE ELSE! (When I get really strung out and/or depressed, the first question my therapist will ask is, "What are you doing to take care of yourself?" Bam!)
Set personal boundaries. Now here’s something you may need to watch out for. If you sense your friend is using you for their own personal, emotional landfill, then draw the line. You are not their professional counselor. You are their friend. They may feel better after spending 45 minutes unloading on you, but you will be a wreck! This is where boundaries come in – knowing where you start and they end. Speak up. In whatever way you choose, tell them you cannot listen any longer and that you will need to talk to them at another time. Assure them of your love and care. Again, encourage them to share the issues with their therapist.
Assure them of God’s love and your support. Gently remind them, in whatever creative way you choose, that God loves and values them more than they know. He is always with them and has promised to never leave. Likewise, assure them of your unwavering friendship. Many times this isn’t easy. Depressed people are hard to love sometimes, but knowing they can always count on you can be their “port in the storm.”
Assure them of hope. There is hope in God. “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know Him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which He has called you, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and His incomparably great power for us who believe.” Eph. 1:17-19. Theirs is not a permanent condition. There is healing and light at the end of the darkness. There is always, always hope.
And finally, pray for them. Pray, pray, pray. How many times do you find yourself praying for people who are physically ill? Pray with the same conviction and fervor for your depressed friend. They need it so very much and they are probably not able to ask for it.
Just to review:
- Encourage a medical evaluation
- Encourage seeing a professional therapist
- Be a good listener
- Do not judge
- Understand true depression is an illness
- Promote self care
- Engage them – don’t let them isolate themselves (but allow space when necessary)
- Set personal boundaries
- Assure them of God’s love and your support
- Assure them of hope
Hold fast to the hope, and pray toward the end, that the day will come when your friend stands in the light of God’s healing and love with you!
A former chaplain with formal and clinical training in pastoral care and a masters in Biblical Studies, Ann Golding (B.S.Ed., M.A.B.S.) has a passion for equipping people to come alongside others in times of crisis and grief. She assists lay people in basic pastoral care skills so that they can confidently show, in word and deed, the love of Christ to others in their darkest moments.