Friday, March 28, 2014

How Do You Support Someone Suffering from Depression?

The purpose of this post is to provide some practical tips that family members and close friends can follow to support a loved one suffering from depression.

A Trip to the Doctor

Family members (or a close friend) should encourage or even take someone suffering from depression to visit the family doctor. In a situation like this, a doctor can be of great help. (I will address this issue in more detail in a later post.)

Seek Professional Help

Encourage a family member/friend suffering from depression to seek professional help from a suitable Christian counsellor who understands depression, or from a professional health care worker (preferably a Christian). This will help the sufferer to identify and deal with often-private issues that are causing the depression. (I will address this issue in more detail in another blog.)

Our Role – Patience, Not Pressure

Someone who has not experienced depression cannot possibly understand what a sufferer is going through. Although it is tempting to pressure them to “Snap out of it,” or “Pull yourself together!” this is the wrong course of action.

When my wife succumbed to depression as a result of postnatal depression and a serious problem in our church, she suddenly announced one day; “I don’t want to go to church any more.”

There were a number of ways I could have responded: I could have said, “The Bible says believers must not forsake our assembling together with other believers!” or perhaps, “That’s our church, our home, we must stick it out!” But her request reminded me of a similar request I had made of my church back in 1989 when depression had overwhelmed me. I was confused and bewildered and my behaviour completely erratic. Having just returned from an extremely hectic and sleepless ten-day missionary orientation trip to Thailand, (where my weight had fallen to 55kg), I asked if I could take time off to work out what was wrong with me. Sadly, I was told to get my act together and fulfil my responsibilities or a drastic course of action would be initiated. This simply sent me spiralling into shock as well.

My wife’s request and condition also reminded me of a married couple who had been down this very road. When the wife had become depressed due to a family tragedy, her husband responded with the most amazing depth of understanding and Christ-like patience. He left church with her and was just there for her. He never put her under any pressure but waited patiently for her to recover. And sure enough, she did recover, and they returned to the church.

Bearing these things in mind, my response to my wife’s statement was to call the senior minister and explain our situation. He was very understanding, and sent us on our way with his blessing, telling us not to be concerned about dropping suddenly out of the Sunday School and music teams. For the next two years, I was simply there for my wife. I encouraged her to get counselling, and took her to see a doctor, but I made no demands on her. We attended another church during that time, but did nothing more than attend the services. After about two years, my wife recovered and returned to her normal self, strengthened by her ordeal. At that time we went back to our church (the serious problem had gone) and are still busily serving the Lord there today.

If someone suffering from depression feels trapped by their circumstances, and wants to leave their church, we should not pressure them to stay. A couple of months after I returned from Thailand, I ended up leaving that church. The leadership thought I was the target of a concentrated spiritual attack (which was certainly true a degree) and pressured me to return. They meant well, and genuinely cared for me, but this pressure only made me worse, as you can see from what I wrote in my diary at that time.

My previous place of fellowship puts me under pressure.
Come back to us! You need the ministry we can give you.
But they don’t really understand, they can’t see the pain.
How do I explain to them how I feel?
The last few nights I cried, a deep crying that hurt more than it healed.

The best way that we can support a loved one suffering from depression is to simply be there for them and spend time with them, even if merely watching TV or together or engaging in a mutual hobby or chore such as gardening or housework. Be someone they are content to be with, someone that they can talk to without worrying that we will respond judgementally.

I am always encouraged by the way Jesus views our frailty – He knows we are weak, and He treats us with gentleness. Isaiah 42:3 ‘A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.’

Sherry Castelluccio, who suffered from severe post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter, offered this advice when I asked her if there been any particular person who supported her greatly through depression.

My husband has been my biggest advocate. When I had the post-partum depression he got his feet wet and kind of had no idea what to do with me. He really believed that I just needed to pray and allow God to heal me. Little did he know, LOL. Fast-forward six years. He’s very understanding of what I’m going through and he supports me in the decisions I make. In every way he’s there for me, regardless of whether he “gets it” or not. He’s learned that most of the time I don’t want him to fix anything. I just need him to listen and he’s perfectly fine with that.

We must be careful not to badger them to change back to what they used to be like, nor try to push them to recover. Recovery, or at least, learning to cope with depression, will come with time, but we must give them that time. If there are things that they cannot face, we should not force them to face them, but allow time to bring healing. This may mean that we have to take over some of their household chores for awhile, be willing to cancel social engagements for a time, perhaps even church.

Colossians 3:12 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.

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(All verses from NIV)

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    1. What incredible advice and wisdom for those whose loved ones are suffering with depression. I'll be passing this on.

    2. This is absolutely full of wisdom and practical help. I appreciate this deeply, and can confirm it is in fact excellent advice. Thank you, Peter.

    3. I certainly appreciate your focusing attention on this very real issue. Before my wife went through her bout with clinical anxiety, I would almost certainly been counted among those who would have oversimplified the problem. I remember all the well-meaning suggestions. One of my favorites: "Have you prayed about it?" Ya think??? The question is, have we prayed about anything else? Anyway, in the end, we learned we had to go through (not around) this trial. We are still learning the lessons He taught us as a result.

    4. Peter, is it tactful to direct or print out this article so that I, who is someone who is depressed, can let the other person know how to support me? I'm frustrated with how to let people close to me know (family) how to help me through this when they think I choose to put on an unhappy face and not act "normal". I also want to be able to discern how to distinguish between my unrealistic expectations of them and reasonable pleas for support, so I don't overtax them and make things worse for both myself and them. One of my problems is with easily being hurt by what the other person said, or DIDN'T say, or how they said it. Or feeling like I'm not getting quite enough loving support and attention from them, causing me to act out in anger and accusing them of not caring. How do I not let myself choose between writing off all and any kind of support for fear of being disappointed and the other extreme, expecting, hoping and demanding too much and then being devastated when I don't feel supported and a fight ensuing because I felt they didn't act "loving" or sensitively to me?

      1. Dear Anonymous

        I think it would be fine to reprint this article and show it to your family. You may even consider printing the booklet on depression on this site, and let them read the first several articles, to give them a clearer indication of how the illness operates.

        From your perspective, you also need to bear in mind that they will not ever be able to fully understand what you are going through, so try not to let their comments, or what they don't say, get to you. Instead, get into the habit of sharing exactly how you feel with Jesus, for He completely understands what you are going through, and is ready to help you as well. "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Phillipians 4:13

        God bless

    5. Thanks, Peter.

      I do understand that they'll never fully understand what I am going through. Which leaves me bewildered as to how to get over my hurt when I don't feel I'm getting the kind of support I need. I go through this with my sister frequently, who gets frustrated when I look or act "sad" because I expect a bit too much from her (extra attention by talking to me more, consoling, ect). She says she doesn't know what more she could say except to tell me to try be more positive and that she gets stressed by being around me, seeing me sulking, and therefore feeling the pressure and obligation to console me and that she just doesn't have the energy or patience to do that all the time, and that she doesn't want to have to feel bad around me. She says she has lots of stress as it is in her life and I'm adding to her stress by making her feel she has to come over and hug me, ask me what's wrong (which she says is pointless because she's tired of talking about the same thing - me being depressed and sad, especially when she feels like nothing she says or does makes any positive difference in my life or that whatever positive way I act because of her consoling is short lived). So she feels frustrated and I feel frustrated by not feeling emotinally supported and then feeling guilty for making her feel stressed, all the while not feeling like I'm getting the support I need and then feeling resentful for it. It's a horrible cycle.

      I'm tempted to just cut off all communication with her so I don't give her stress and on the other hand desperately pleading to her to not abandon me, but it seems both comes at a cost. And we just reconciled recently after not speaking for three years. Would going for a few counseling sessions together help us both work out how to come to a resolution that we could both live with? I do feel bad for her because she is the only sister out of a couple others who has made the most effort to comfort me, and yet, we are encountering conflict and frustration on both ends. I tend to expect more emotional support from her because of not really having anyone else I could depend on so she feels so much burden. I hate myself, knowing how stressed she feels because of my expectations and yet, feeling so hurt when I feel she doesn't come through for me. So do you think, this being a familial conflict, that going to a counselor for a few sessions might help? I do plan on finding a mental health professional soon. I am desperately feeling like I'm sinking in a black hole.

      BTW, do you know if I am the same person posting on other articles even though I select Anonymous? (If so, you'd know more of my background of my current issues).

      Thank you, Peter.

      1. Dear Anonymous,

        I figured it was you, thanks for letting me know.

        Remember that your own emotional responses to relationships are currently affected by your depressed state. When you are struggling with a reaction, please go to Jesus, and just wait on Him. Surrender the turmoil to Him and let Him guide you to a place of forgiveness and love for them. And patience towards yourself. One important thing, though, is not to place unrealistic expectations upon your sister. Before you see her, remind yourself that she cannot understand exactly what you are going through, and don't expect too much from her or burden her too much with your sufferings. You need to give her room to be herself without reading rejection into it.

        That's good news you are looking for a health professional soon. The can help you to sort through the emotional issues that are tying you in knots, and guide you towards recovery.

        Love in Christ,

    6. Again, thank you Peter.

      My sister tells me that I have no idea how much pressure and stress I give her in making her feel like she has to constantly console me, and I am going to do my best to remember what you have said. It's amazing how easily hurt I get and my need for frequent assurance and the lack of people I can turn to unfortunately makes me seek more consoling from her than she is able to provide. My depression has been persistent to different degrees for many years now but I am at a point so low that I know I need some kind of professional help because I can barely function, from the pain being so great (the heaviness in my chest feels like lead and I feel so weighed down) and feeling excluded from the rest of my family, who knows I'm going through a hard time but doesn't know how to really support me and thinks I just need to "try harder and stop being so negative." I am so certain that so much of my depression has developed from my childhood and I flounder as to how to interact with them without making them feel uncomfortable with my downess and trying to force myself to be a part of family and society. My mother and sister have said that if I am going to come and have a sad look on my face the entire time, to not come at all to family gatherings because it makes them feel uncomfortable and they say I don't even try to socialize with them anyway, when I'm like that. I struggle trying to not feel resentful from feeling that their love for me is conditional and not feeling like I could really count on them to lean on during this terrible time.

      I have an upcoming appointment with a counselor at a church I sometimes attend and would like to ask you - what are some rules of thumb to know if you've got a "good one"? I don't want to have to resort to finding a therapist through my Medi-cal since finding a Christian one would be hard (and even, they are not all equal) but I'm so anxious for RELIEF from these horrible feelings that I just want to be given a prescription and I know a church counselor cannot do that. I know talk therapy works just as well as medicine for some, and for others, it won't be enough. I have a feeling that I am in the latter.

      How many sessions do you think I should need to tell whether or not I should keep seeing this church counselor? I apologize for asking for all this advice from you but I really need all the encouragement I can get. Many thanks.

      1. Dear Anonymous,

        Thanks for the comment. Regarding finding a good counsellor, they will hopefully understand the nature of depression, counselling you patiently and with kindness. They will hopefully encourage you to share each major underlying anxiety/fear that is afflicting you, and help you, from a Biblical basis, face and overcome each of those fears. (No need to share every little fear, only the major underlying ones.) And through it all, they will encourage you to draw closer to Jesus and the Father. You would need to keep seeing them for several months most likely. It is common, though, to feel some inner pain at first as a result of the sessions, but don't let this stop you, for it will pass.

        I would still encourage you to see a doctor and be placed on a suitable medication, as this can be invaluable in helping you recover.

        God bless