At our core, humans are undeniably relational beings. We were created in the image of a relational God and we yearn for companionship.
Depression, a disease of terrifying loneliness, is an enemy of friendship. Having been a friend to the depressed, as well as the depressed friend, I am well aware of the significant struggle it is to know how to respond when you see your friend afflicted with such a bewildering state of being. Both parties become rendered helpless by confusion and frustration from a lack of knowing what to do.
The first inclination when you struggle with depression is to withdraw from everyone and everything. However, to retreat into isolation only perpetuates the vicious cycle of depression until you are consumed with hopelessness. How do we rectify this problem?
It is unfortunate that managing a response to someone we love struggling with depression is not intuitive. From my personal experience, most people are pretty bad at being a helpful friend to someone who struggles with depression, despite genuinely caring intentions. However, I have a lot of empathy for these people. Before my own devastating, but enlightening, journey with depression, I was not a good friend to the mentally ill. It wasn’t until I was on the other side, that I began to realize the many ignorant and erroneous assumptions, I am now ashamed to admit, I had about people who struggled with mental illness.
Due to this, I have outlined five fundamental and universal principles that every person absolutely needs to understand about their friend who is struggling with depression.
Number one: Depression is not logical. Therefore, listen.
With mental illness, there is no off switch; it’s not a consequence of a circumstance or action. Depression simply exists in spite of a person’s life circumstances, just like any other illness. There is no cause and affect relationship between someone’s depression and a mendable circumstance in their life.
Depression, as a result of a chemical imbalance, causes someone to feel and think negative, hopeless, and lonely thoughts and emotions that have no bearing in reality. Therefore, reminding someone of the good things they have going on their life, what they ought to be grateful for, and even trying to normalize their struggle by reminding them that everyone gets sad sometimes, causes a great deal of harm.
The assumption that their state of feeling needs a logical fix by reorienting their perspective on life, implies to them that you aren’t taking them seriously. In fact, this communicates that you see them as intentionally choosing to be depressed, which can be devastating when you already feel like a failure and burden to everyone around you. Therefore, avoid offering advice and perspective, and just listen. It’s simple, easy, and can actually provide relief.
A great thinker named Dietrich Bonheoffer, who is far more eloquent at expressing the intricacies of life than me, once said, “Christians so often think that they must contribute something when they are in the company of others–that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.” The space you leave with the absence of your words by refraining from offering advice demonstrates more caring and understanding than any phrase of comfort you could offer; you are demonstrating that you realize this is out of anyone’s control. Thing’s like, “tell me how you feel,” “that must be very hard for you,” and “I’m so sorry you are struggling like this,” are easy ways to be an active listener.
Number two: Remind them of the truth, not how they ought to feel.
In lieu of listening and not giving advice, there are some helpful things one can say. It’s easy when someone is sad to try and give them reasons to find happiness again. Granted, we all have something to be grateful for. However, as I’ve said, depression is not logical and fills your mind with lies. This might be hard to wrap your mind around, but your friend can be very grateful for things in their life and still feel depressed.
What your friend really needs is to hear truth. What do I mean by this? Depression is telling them they are worthless, unlovable, and a failure. Remind them of the truth; remind them that they are valuable, loved by many, and of all the things they have accomplished. Remind them of their strengths. Speak truth to them and they will most likely deny the things you say, and insist that they are a mistake and failure, but this truth has power to begin clearing away the cloud of lies that is engulfing their perspective on life.
For every lie, speak the antithesis of truth that will help reorient them out of their tragic reality. This validates that what they feel is real for them, but also helps draw them back into true reality by not causing them to feel guilty about what they can’t feel or be, but simply reminds them of who they are, despite these feelings.
Number three: Fear can be misunderstood as moodiness and anger.
It’s not easy to be there for your friend when they are depressed. Especially when their emotions are literally spilling out of them uncontrollably and they often seem like they are angry and just downright moody. It’s easy to either feel as if you are the cause of their mood or lose patience, especially when you feel like you don’t deserve that kind of behavior from them. After all, you’re just trying to help. You can’t be expected to be solely responsible for this uncomfortable situation, right? If only they would just tell you what you did wrong, this would be easy to fix, right? Yes, you’re right. Both people need to offer a little patience with the other, however, what you might be interpreting as anger and annoyance is really just fear, that has little to nothing to do with you.
Depression causes an overwhelming loss of control, as you become a prisoner to your own mind. You are trapped by your lack of ability to feel and think what is rational and appropriate and you are terrified of losing yourself to this chaos.
Depression causes everything around you to be uncomfortably excessive. Everything is louder, bigger, brighter, and you feel ever so much smaller and pointless. You become suspicious about every person around you, believing they are secretly judging you for being alive. While your friend might seem downright grouchy and rude, I can almost guarantee you they are really just feeling out of place, and ever so frightened. Be patient, they woke up feeling like a stranger in their own body and they feel like they are slowly disappearing into a living death. Try not to take it personally, because that will just cause them to feel even more overly responsible and burdensome.
Number four: Be the first to approach them; they won’t seek you out because they feel unworthy of friendship.
One of the most vicious factors of depression is that when you need help the most, you are least likely to seek it out. As I said before, depression is a disease of loneliness that convinces you that all of your friends dislike you and that the reality of life is that you deserve to be lonely.
You feel like the world’s biggest mistake and you are convinced that everyone knows it. Therefore, the right thing to do is to withdraw because seeking help is a complete contradiction to your new reality.
In other words, depression is a prison and it’s not easy to break down its walls to reach your lonely friend. Sometimes, you have to force your way into that world, but I promise you that it’s worth your effort. You are giving them a reason to believe again that maybe, just maybe, they are worthy of love. While this won’t cure their situation, it will give them relief that can give them enough strength to stay in the race. They may protest your intrusion into their little world, but don’t let that deter you. Most often, this is just a means to test whether or not you really care. This might seem manipulative, but it’s really just a desperate attempt to find hope again.
Number five: Remember that they miss themselves too.
Watching your friend become shrouded with depression is saddening, difficult, and frustrating. You don’t even know who this person is anymore. You miss the “good times” when it was natural and easy to talk, laugh, joke, and just do life with this person.
Now, you are trying desperately to hold onto the memory of what they were and what you know than can be. You are trying to relate to what seems like a complete stranger who has stopped looking you in the eye, seems to always be on the verge of tears, and refuses to hang out, and instead, quietly retreating into lonely, quiet spaces. You miss your friend. However, please don’t forget that they miss themselves too.
Be honest with them about how sad you both are they can’t be themselves. But remind them that your friendship is not conditional on whether they can meet the standard of what you both wish they could be. This is an opportunity for unconditional love. This is an opportunity to show them the face of Jesus. This is an opportunity to give the hopeless hope by giving love that doesn’t require them to meet a certain standard, but takes them as they are in the their moodiness, fear, anger, confusion, and loneliness. This kind of love is a light that will shine in the darkness of their world. This kind of love is one of the best ways to reflect the love that Christ gave to all of us on the cross.
Until next time,
~The Ghost in the Pew