Depression does not happen in a vacuum. It affects not only the depressed person, but many other people—including, especially, family members and friends. As a depressed person continues to struggle for months and often years, friends and family members struggle to offer wise counsel and practical help: What should they do or say? What should they not do or say?
I think back to my own two extended periods of depression. Depression curved me in on myself. Even when I was in the room with friends and loved ones, I was “absent.” Even when I was willing and able to talk to the people around me, I focused conversation on me, my feelings, my frustrations, my lack of hope. Depression also tainted my response to the love and care shown to me by family and friends. When loved ones told me they were praying for me, or encouraged me with Scripture, I responded unenthusiastically. When they offered practical advice, often I swatted it away.
My depression permeated the air, like a heavy fog, eventually seeping into all the “rooms” of my life—the rooms inhabited by family, friends, and coworkers. This is not unusual; a person’s depression can be very difficult on family and friends. In my own experience, I watched my mother, father, coworkers, and friends struggle mightily to help me in the best way they knew how. For that, I am profoundly grateful.
In light of the inherent challenges of caring for depressed persons, therefore, I offer this list of seven tips for friends and family members of a loved one who is depressed. In composing the list, I draw not only upon field-standard therapeutic guidelines but also my own experience.
1. Prepare to Play the Long Game Rather Than the Short Game
The first thing to do if you want to help a depressed person is to prepare yourself for the long game. A depressed person usually suffers for months or years before, hopefully, pulling out of it. One way to prepare yourself is to read a few brief articles or even a book-length treatment (such as Ed Welch, A Stubborn Darkness). Another way to prepare yourself is by determining to practice the disciplines of sympathy and patience.
2. View Yourself as More of a Facilitator than a Fixer
Depression cannot be “fixed” in a “magical” or immediate manner. It is a serious psychosomatic (one that affects body, mind and soul) condition. Depression is not something that a person can “snap out of.” It is not something that will be helped by comments such as “It’s all in your head” or “C’mon now, you need to man up.” Thus, one of the best ways to begin facilitating a person’s eventual emergence from depression is to listen. Encourage them to talk about their depression, but instead of trying to offer an immediate solution, offer your support.
3. Approach Conversation as an Art Rather than a Science
If you view yourself as a facilitator more than a fixer (point #2), conversation becomes more of an art form than a science. While you can’t offer an empirically-proven “fix” (conversation as “science”), you can leverage conversational opportunities to facilitate the depressed person’s eventual healing. You can listen to them, bring a smile and a hug into their lives, encourage them to seek help, and gently correct their catastrophizing. You can ask sympathetic and thoughtful questions such as: When did you first start feeling depressed? Can you think of what might have triggered the feelings? Are there any activities that tend to make you feel better or feel worse? Artful conversation is a soothing balm for aching hearts.
4. Socialize Them instead of Rubber-Stamping their Isolation
Depressed people need to be in the company of other people even though, typically, they tend to shy away from socializing. Encourage them to seek professional help in the form of doctors, therapists, and pastoral-spiritual counselors. Encourage them to remain connected to their social circle. If you are going or watching a ballgame, ask them to join you. This reassures them that they haven’t been forgotten; even if they decline participation, they are reminded that their friends and family members will be there for them when they are ready to reengage.
5. Make Them Smile Instead of Matching their Melancholy
This one is a little tricky. Although it is not a good idea for you to be aggressively chipper around a depressed person, it is a good idea to maintain your own positivity, bring a smile to their face if possible, and insert a little levity whenever appropriate. During my first period of extended depression, laughter was one of the few things that changed my mood significantly. I read funny books, watched stand-up comedians and comedies on television, and enjoyed joking with friends. Thus, if and when you find it possible, help to clear away the fog momentarily by catalyzing smiles or laughter.
6. Offer Practical Help in Addition to Practical Words
When coming alongside of a depressive person, try to offer a balanced combination of practical words and practical actions. Practical words might include encouragement, prayers, spiritual reminders, and offers to help a person find professional help. Practical actions might include offering financial assistance, helping with certain necessary tasks the depressed person finds daunting, and offering to bring over a meal. In other words, in a depressed person’s experience, it might be more helpful to help with something practical than to offer yet another promise of prayer; conversely, on a given day, a promise of prayer might be more valuable than help with the dishes. Thus, it is a safe strategy to help with both words and actions.
7. Interrupt Their Depression Rather than Conforming to It
Although generally you want to listen more than speak, and sympathize more than trying to fix things, it is good sometimes to “interrupt” a person’s depression by speaking some truths that might be hard for them to embrace in the moment. Psychologist and pastoral counselor Ed Welch puts it well: “Don’t hesitate to interrupt the flow of despair, self-pity, and complaints that only reinforce the person’s unbiblical interpretations of God and himself.” A depressed person’s interpretation of reality (e.g. catastrophizing) is inaccurate and will drive them further into depression until they can break out of it. Of course, you must pray for wisdom in choosing when and how to interrupt their depression.
Conclusion: Shining a Steady Light into the Thick Fog
Taken together, these seven actions help friends and family members actively love their depressed counterpart. We must not allow our love to be derailed or dulled by the inappropriate social signals emitted by the heavy fog surrounding our loved one. Often, we will find ourselves challenged and stretched when caring for that person. We cannot change them. We likely will not see immediate signs of improvement. We will grow weary. But love them we must.
I am profoundly grateful for the family members, friends, and co-workers who “partnered” with me and helped to facilitate my eventual emergence from the fog of depression. Their love was sturdy; they persisted with loving words and actions. Their love was one-sided; they loved me even when I found it difficult or impossible to reciprocate. And their love was Christ-centered; they shined the light of the gospel in the middle of my dark fog.