Part One of a series about reaching out to and understanding those who cope with depression.
Recently my book club read “Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy” by John Janaro. Among some amazing insights, we had some very fruitful discussion about depression and its elusive, sneaky nature. We heard from a number of people who had significantly battled depression, and what helped and did not help them in their journey. With 1 out of 10 adults dealing with depression in the U.S., we all have someone close to us who is affected, whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a parent, a friend or even a child. Often we feel uncomfortable in the relationship, because we don’t know how involved to be, and sometimes we hesitate for fear of being too involved. Sometimes we feel like the only way to be helpful is if we give some advice, and then we end up saying the wrong thing.
But here’s the honest truth…the best thing we can possibly do is give our time and presence to a person in pain, that is the starting point. The pressure to say something life-changing is not ours. Below are a few things we shouldn’t say outright to someone struggling with depression or mental illness.
Please don’t say:
1) Try to think more positive
2) You just need to get out and exercise
3) You need to pray more
4) It’s all in your head
5) You just need perspective, others have it much worse.
The flaw in the logic of all of these well-intentioned comments is the implication that the person has control over the way they feel. For some, a mild depressive state can be temporary, in which case some of these suggestions may actually be helpful. But for others, depression is a deep state of mind, clinically defined, where their mind is like a defenseless country being attacked by a merciless army of bad thoughts. It is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, which can typically only be remedied by medication and therapy, and supported by prayer.
Instead, we can say things like this.
1) You’re not alone
2) I’m here for you, let me help you
3) This is not your fault
4) You are important, you are loved
5) I am praying for you
As family and friends of people suffering with a mental illness, our job isn’t to make the pain and suffering disappear. Being there for someone is far more valuable, to validate their existence and their suffering, to remind them it is not their fault and they are not crazy. To try to solve it or make their pain disappear is not our task. The more we educate ourselves about the ebb and flow of Depression, the better we will be able to understand the people who carry that cross.
So many carry this cross in silence because of the stigma which is attached. No one wants to admit that their life feels out of control and that on some days, they’d rather not be around to have to deal with it. Mothers of young children struggle with extreme guilt and anxiety when depression strikes them (or vice versa). So when someone approaches us, it means they have finally mustered the courage to admit their struggle and reach out for help. Often times a depressed person pulls away because they feel like no one cares. It is a terrible reinforcer to leave that person to their own devices. If we do not feel like we are equipped, we must try to help the person find the qualified help they need. While prayer is also essential to healing, therapy will likely be a multi-pronged process. A person suffering with depression has to make a huge leap over themselves to reach out even to God, for the distortion of their thoughts leads them to believe even He has abandoned them forever and ever. Lifting hands to prayer can feel like a heroic effort, and if one feels He is not there, the hopelessness and despair continues.
I spoke with Britt Holan, the Counseling Supervisor for the Diocese of Austin Family Counseling and Family Life Office and fellow ACNM blogger. “The Diocese offers counseling for depression to the entire Austin community. We have a staff of 8 therapists on hand, and we see clients from 8am-7pm Monday through Thursday, and 8-5 on Friday. We’re getting ready to do a depression support group later this summer for anyone in the Austin Diocese. People with questions on how to support those with depression can call me anytime at 512-949-2494,” Holan says.
In our society, aging, pain and suffering are things to be treated. For something like mental illness, of course this is true. But even with treatment, we may still have to deal with problems that don’t completely go away, for example, mortality! 🙂 Many of us may not realize that the redemptive suffering is foundational in our faith, Catholics do not believe suffering is a useless, needless thing. We wouldn’t run out into the street and pray all day for a meteorite to land on our house, but we do believe that when suffering is presented to us, it can be used in God’s plan for our lives, and others lives as well. We can view our cross to be an opportunity to grow in holiness, like so many of the saints before us have taught us to do. We might not be smiling while we carry it, but the cross becomes lighter, because we feel Jesus carrying it with us, or maybe it is the other way around. Maybe it’s that we’re uniting suffering to someone else’s, making the burden for all a little lighter. However we view it, Christ promises that we are never alone, no one is worthless, and His love is for all.
“The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. A righteous man may have many troubles, but the Lord delivers him from them all.” ~Psalm 34:18, 19
“The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” Deuteronomy 31:8
For further reading:
10 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person
Surving Depression: A Catholic Approach
Never Give Up: My Life and God’s Mercy
Salvifici Doloris – The Redemptive Suffering of Christ
The Secret Garden – an inspiring metaphor for healing from mental and physical illness
Please add your recommendations of resources in the comments section, and anything else you would like to share.