How to Help a Friend Fight Depression
7 dos and don'ts for helping a friend who struggles with depression.
Depression is debilitating. When I am caught in its spiral of judgment-clouding twisted logic there is often little I am able to do for myself.
I know I’m hard to love when I’m depressed, but if you are the rare friend who is committed to staying with me through the pain, consider these seven ways you can help me.
1. Don’t Judge.
You will feel frustrated with me. You will wonder why I can’t—or don’t—get better. You won’t understand my limitations. You will call and suggest a fun activity, hoping to cheer me up, only to find that I just can’t. It won’t make sense.
But please don’t judge me. I’m already judging myself harshly. I’m having trouble understanding myself, too. I’ve heard happiness is a choice and I’m responsible for my own emotions, but right now I’m having difficulty figuring out how to apply those principles.
Pray that your heart would be full of grace toward me. If judgment remains in your heart, I will probably sense that. It will probably come out, because “out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks.” What a blessing if the overflow of your heart is grace.
2. Don’t Tell Me to Believe Things I Already Know.
I know God is good. I know He works everything for good for those who love Him. I know I should find joy in God.
And I know it is good to be reminded of these things, but please tread carefully. I know these truths should thrill my soul, but right now my soul is wounded. It isn’t a lack of faith or unbelief. Please don’t imply that my spiritual deficiencies are the cause of my depression.
Not a sparrow falls to the ground without God’s knowledge, but sparrows still fall. God works all things to the good for those who love Him. But He still allows His saints to suffer. And He doesn’t always tell them why.
3. Learn to Listen.
I will say things that are not true, things that need to be refuted. I will express my pain in wrong ways.
I need you to tell me true things, but first I need to know that I have been heard. I need grace when I say, “I’m the most miserable person alive!” Understand that right now, I probably do believe that.
Don’t immediately shoot me down with, “That’s not true!” Instead, let me know that you’ve heard me with something like, “Wow. You must feel pretty bad right now. You feel pretty alone, like no one else can really understand what you’re going through.”
After actively listening to me, you can attempt to correct my faulty thinking, with something like, “I know you feel terrible and alone and not understood. But you aren’t alone. I may not completely understand, but I love you and I’m here for you, and that won’t change. And, what’s more, God loves you, and whereas I might fail you, He never will.” By this point, I may actually be able to hear you, because I feel heard.
4. Don’t Try to Fix It.
You can’t. There is nothing you can say that can convince me to be happy, and most attempts will lead to frustration on both sides.
5. Sit With Me.
I’m going through a dark time right now, and what I need most is someone who is willing to sit with me in my darkness. Hold me while I cry.
Only after you hear me and hold me will there be any chance that I can hear the truth.
6. If You Give Advice, Back It Up with Support.
Be very careful if you feel like telling me I need to do something. You may be right, but please understand how impossible everything feels right now. Tell me to do something only if you are prepared to hold my hand through it.
I know exercise will help me feel better. But tell me to exercise only if you are prepared to come over, roll me out of bed, pick out my exercise clothes, choose my exercise program, prod me every step of the way and do my laundry when it’s over. And don’t look discouraged when I’m not better after a week of this. It’s helping, but change is slow.
If that is too much commitment, don’t give the advice. I am weary of hearing what I should do without the strength to do it. I don’t need cheap words. I need someone who is willing to sacrifice his or her time and comfort to something they truly believe will be helpful to me.
7. Pray For Me and With Me
There are several reasons why this is good: There are the standard biblical reasons about when two or more come together in Jesus’ name He will be there.
Then there’s the practical reason: If you pray with me right now while you’re thinking of it, both of us know that your well-intentioned promise to pray at some vague time in the future won’t be forgotten when you get home and are overwhelmed with life’s little urgencies.
Finally, there’s the relational reason: Hearing you plead with God for me gives me another opportunity to feel heard. When I hear you tell God what I’ve told you, I know you have paid attention. You may not completely understand my emotions, but when you understand enough to tell God, my feelings of isolation begin to recede.
Like everything else, don’t expect immediate fixes from prayer. We serve a powerful God, a God who heals, but as far as I can see, He usually heals depression gradually.
To be my friend while I am suffering from depression is a heavy burden. And while I am in the middle of it, I will be just as likely to lash out at you as to thank you. But when I can, I will thank you with my whole heart.