Yesterday was global mental health day. I didn’t know it was until one of my friends posted a favorite quote about depression on social media. Every disease and social issue seems to have an awareness day or even a whole month dedicated to it (who gets to decide these things by the way?).
I think that awareness is very important, but sometimes it just adds to the noise and makes us think we are doing something to change the world around us when we aren’t, we are just sitting in isolation and typing up our opinions. I often see awareness as a young 20 something standing on some kind of makeshift platform with a bullhorn, trying to grab the attention of the people passing by her, all busy with their to do lists and relational priorities. Maybe what she’s saying needs to be heard, but the loudness from the bullhorn and the elevation she’s standing on to help her be seen, are actually the elements that will cause her message to feel distance and unimportant to those she’s trying to reach.
Listening hearts more than ears is what is needed for awareness to be effective, at least in my opinion. And the heart is not as easily engaged in awareness conversations.
I guess I say all that because the loud voices without action and heart engagement drives me nuts. But as someone who likes words and debating, I’m not saying I’m above this sort of passivity.
With that in mind I’m going to share a few of my thoughts on how to help people, who are struggling with depression. Depression is just one of the many mental illnesses people suffer from, but it is the most prevalent. It’s also the mental illness I have been dealing with for most of this past year.
Originally when I thought about writing a post about depression, I thought I would share my story and what I’ve been experiences with some tips for those who have loved ones who are also suffering. But I’m not at the place I can yet write about my story, so I’m just going to share a few thoughts about what was helpful and hurtful to me when I was really in a dark place, with the hopes it helps a few people better interact with their loved ones who are suffering with this illness.
A few qualifiers or items to note before I begin. These thoughts are all based upon my experience, and thus of course they won’t apply to everyone dealing with depression. Secondly, if you’re my friend and you find your actions listed on the “not helpful” list, it’s ok. So many of my actions towards many friends who dealt with depression before I had would also be listed there also. Thirdly, if you’re tired of reading already here’s my one main and plain pointer for helping your friends and loved ones who deal with depression, give them unconditional love! Show up in their lives and love them during the roller coaster of highs and lows.
(All these thoughts were written on my iPhone notes to help me cope and process during the really dark days. These helpful and not helpful actions and words were all things I actually experienced with people.)
- When you hear me out and ask perceptive and insightful questions about what’s going on in my head and heart, WITHOUT judgement.
- When you dig past my generic answers. I want to share more, but I won’t share more because I don’t trust you actually want to hear it. So if you want to know how I really am, you’re going to have to dig a little and listen hard.
- When you tell me you understand and literally say “you’re not crazy.”
- When you remind me that you love me no matter what.
- Empathy without feeling the need to go into all the details of your story and assume what worked for you will work for me.
- Bible verses specifically about God’s love for the lowly and that He fights our battles for us.
- Telling me to come over to your house. I may not feel like going initially, but I always feel better when I’m there surrounded by people that love me.
- Asking me about suicidal thoughts (this was rarely done). I know you’re scared to ask, but you need to. Ask if I’ve thought about it, and if I have, ask if I have a plan.
- When you remind me about the good you see in me. I am not just my depression but sometimes I think I am. I feel as though I’ve lost myself or all my good qualities. Remind me that I haven’t. Where do you still see gold in my life?
- When you help me find a counselor. Compile a list, sit down with me and help me make the phone calls. Offer to help pay for some of the cost if you can. It’s so incredibly hard to make these phone calls and actually set up appointments.
- When you pray for me.
What Doesn’t Help or Hurts me
- Generic questions. “How is your relationship with Jesus?” What I hear when you ask this is, “your relationship with Jesus must not be good because you struggling so much. If you were really going to God and allowing him to move in your life He would.”
- The statement “You don’t have to be sad or be in depression, it’s a choice, get off the roller coaster.” (Hello, this was/is the hardest season of my life. Why would anyone choose depression?)
- “This is what I did and it worked.” – What I hear is, “if you were as motivated as I was you could get passed all this.” I want to hear your story and how you got through, but please first empathize. Tell me about the bad days, tell me how painful and hard it was. Don’t jump so quickly to how you go out of it, it belittles the pain I’m in and the battle I’m fighting. I want to hear truth and about your journey, but I need it from a place of caring and understanding.
- “Your emotions follow your thinking.” I largely agree with this, but it’s a long slow slow process. Don’t assume because I’m still struggling with depression that my mind is full of sin and lies.
- Lecturing me and reprimanding me when I’m in a bad emotional place. During depression, like all times in life, I’m going to make mistakes, I’m going to cope in the wrong ways. Don’t lecture me about my bad decisions during my bad days. During depression I had/have good days, save the lectures for those days or figure out how to encourage me to make good choices without the lecture. I still need truth on bad days, but the kinds of truth I need right now is the reminder that God loves me and you love me and believe in me.
- If you’re going to be there for me then be there for me. Don’t act like you are and then not answer my calls and texts. It’s ok if you can’t be there for me, not everyone can be. But I need people I know I can go to during dark times and they are going to respond. I need safe people. If you don’t have the time or energy don’t pretend to.
A few extra thoughts
Validations empowers. Validation gives me the ability to trust myself and believe I can make good decisions. Validation is necessary to help me stand up straight and begin to try and walk again. Maybe I need to be pruned a little too, but first offer some validation.
Shame does that exact opposite. Shame is fear based and it will only weaken me further.
Look out for the “struggling but” statements. “I’m struggling or life is hard, BUT God is good.” “I’m not doing the best, BUT God’s got me.” These statements are how we cut the tension. It’s a social politeness when talking to people to cut the tension. If we were to really tell you how we are, we know it would feel like a weight or burden, so we typically cut that tension with humor or with but statements (filled with Christianese if you’re a Christian). If you want to really know how we are give us eye contact and caring and insightful questions. Better yet, offer yourself and your time so we can really share our hearts.
If I really trust you you’re going to get the full brunt of my down days. You’re going to get all the negativity without any glimmer of optimism because that’s how I really feel most days. You’re going to hear my exaggerated sentiments about my life and relationships as I express my pain and hurt. The friends who have really helped me have left me vent and told me it didn’t faze them and reinforced after that they love me.
If I offer to show someone my true pain and I’m immediately hit with advice (meant to forge optimism in me) I will shut down and trust is lost.
Sometimes it seems ungodly to not offer optimism when we share our pain and battle with depression. It may seem like we’ve lost our hope in God when we verbalize our struggle without stating we “see God” or “we know he will get us through.” But it absolutely doesn’t mean that when we state our pain without stating anything about God that we don’t hope in him. In fact we probably hope in his strong arm to save more than we ever have. Yes, we may not be completely confident he will pull us through, but still it is our hope. And even if we are 100% confident he will pull us through we also know that is not likely to happen immediately. We know that we still have a long road ahead of us, will you join us on that road? Will you walk with us a bit? Or simply point to the road marker and show us on the map where to go, wish us luck without offering any part of your time and resources?