If you could, would you wrap yourself in a wet blanket, turn a nice day gloomy, engage in things that suck your energy dry, engage in things that you believe are futile? For many the prospects of coming alongside and offering help to someone who is depressed is very much like choosing these options. Many would stay clear of those who are constantly negative, worried, angry, disparaging and self-centered simply as a means of self-preservation. People like that can drag one down, but these things are typical of someone who struggles with depression and who desperately need someone to help.
In offering help, it is prudent to be slow to speak, slow to diagnose and quick to listen. When helping someone who is depressed we often feel we have to say something to cheer them up. Oh, if only it were that simple! Saying things like, “it could be worse” or “don’t take things so hard” or “focus on the positive” don’t help. The depressed person would if they could but depression goes beyond mere sadness. It is intensely oppressive and persistent. A quick and simple diagnosis may actually show disregard for the depressed person who is experiencing things that to them are hopelessly complex. Listen to them. This is not to indulge the depressed person’s negative thoughts or to encourage them, but a chance to enter their world.
Very often those who are depressed aren’t looking so much for a savior as they are for a companion, someone who will not disregard them. We listen so that we can sympathize and empathize. The depressed person will often ask, silently or not, whether others can appreciate what they are going through and if they understand that what they are experiencing is anything but normal or simple. In all of this a word of caution is in order. It is important to take care of your own mental and spiritual health first and to realize your limitations.
Work against stigma and naivety, both your own and others. Those in the church should not be ignoring the problem of depression, but acknowledging the prevalence of depression and that a person can be a mature Christian and have a strong saving faith, but still be depressed. Depressed people are not necessarily weak, or spiritually immature, but can often be viewed that way. They aren’t any more of a sinner than you because they have doubts and are lacking joy. Read on the subject and provide opportunities in the church for depression to be uncovered and discussed.
Build up those who are depressed. This may go against what you have come to believe is proper. Aren’t we told that those who are humble will be exalted (Matt. 23:12)? We believe that being “low” is a good state to be in and that we need to bring down those who would be exalted. We also, however, need to be those who encourage and build up (1 Thess. 5:11; Romans 15:2). The depressed person is not in too much danger of thinking too highly of themselves. They do, however, desperately need to see that they are not worthless, that they are valued. One person who struggles with depression and who I have come alongside is such a trophy of God’s grace. He is persevering in the faith and in so doing has been such an encouragement to me. When I told him this, he marveled that that could be true.
Identify the things that you appreciate or ways that those who struggle with depression are a blessing to others. Communicate these things to them.
Help the depressed person prioritize their life and build routine. Many times a depressed person’s life lacks definition. They feel that everything needs to be done and that everything is a burden. Even the smallest things may feel like climbing Mount Everest. Help them decide where they should focus their energy and what really doesn’t matter.
Strangely, for the depressed person nothing matters and yet everything matters. Routine is crucial. If the depressed person has places to be (like work or a job) where people depend on them, this can be a good thing. If they don’t, find things they can be involved in that are regular and ongoing. If you are going to church tell them you will be there to pick them up. Don’t just expect that they will show up. If they aren’t there, phone them and tell them you missed them. Help them schedule their day and hold them accountable to the schedule. If one is not naturally feeling productive, external constraints that require one to be productive are crucial or one will wallow in their misery.
Help them with their thoughts and perspectives. Being depressed, like many things in life will be wavelike. There will be lows, but there will be relative highs. Help them look at their depression objectively. They aren’t their depression. They are ones who, like everyone, struggle with something. Where their thoughts are negative or false, don’t judge them as good or bad. Don’t tell them they shouldn’t think that way. They know that. Patiently correct false thinking and false perspectives with truth. For example, if someone says that God doesn’t care about them you may patiently say that it can sometimes seem that way and then point them to the truth of Scripture that God does care. You often don’t have to persuade the depressed Christian of the truth, but rather faithfully and patiently need to challenge faulty thinking with the truth that they already know.
Don’t be afraid to suggest that the person see a doctor. Let me say this, medication may be a great help but it isn’t the answer. It may help a person function and fulfill their obligations such as their occupation, but it isn’t a cure. It may not be something that you would be quick to suggest and that is fine, but do consider it as one of the helps available.
Medication doesn’t always help, nor is it always a wise course of action. In many cases, people can achieve the same effect by reforming their thinking, but this takes time and medication may be a way to help a person do this. It doesn’t take away or cure the depression, but may help a person cope. There are also other physical imbalances or situations of which depression is a cause. In all this wisdom is necessary, but physical helps should not be rejected out of hand.
Those who are depressed in the church, if they believe, have a Savior. They do not need you to be their savior, but would surely welcome a faithful friend and companion. As I have told a friend who is depressed, and having struggled with my own depression, the race may be tough, the way may be hard, but we will run it together until we cross the finish line and by God’s grace it is done.