Updated: May 31, 2020
Your friend just told you that they're depressed, or you’ve noticed they've been going through a hard time. What do you say? If you live in the South like I do, a common, go-to response would be, "just pray about it" or you might ask "have you prayed about it?" You may even throw in a good ole "Give it to God." You know, just in case they're really depressed.
I want to preface this by saying that yes, prayer, for some, is an integral part of any functioning day and can instantaneously improve one's mood or outlook. Prayer has been and continues to be monumental in the personal and collective healing for many people and communities. In many cases, prayer alone can ease feelings of hopelessness and despair with the understanding that said prayers have been heard and our current troubles will soon be behind us.
The word "depressed" is often times used loosely to describe a temporary emotional response (sadness or "down in the dumps") to an upsetting event or circumstance. I'm guilty of this myself. "Girl turn this music off, it's depressing me." No doubt the overuse of the word has rendered it trivial and we quite frequently forget about it as quickly as it was uttered. That's not what we're talking about here. We're talking about Major Depressive Disorder, the clinical kind of depression, the debilitating mental illness kind of depression that has been proven to be a chemical imbalance.
Maybe your friend hasn't been diagnosed, but they're describing feeling down or "depressed" daily. they've been struggling with their sleep or all they want to do is sleep, their appetite has increased or decreased, and they may have a slight difference in weight. Perhaps you've noticed them withdrawing or isolating more, maybe they don't seem to fix themselves up anymore or as much. All of these can be indicators of depression and experiencing even a few of these symptoms (there are many more) regularly can be immobilizing and feel really…shitty.
Why Some Words May Not Actually Be Helpful
Naturally, hearing that someone we love is feeling like this, or worse, we want to help. Right? So, what do we do? We tell them what we think will make them feel better or what has worked for us. We tell them to "just pray about it.” We may even list all of their accomplishments and state all of the positive things they have going for them to remind them of their "blessings.”
You obviously care for this person deeply and want to offer some meaningful advice or insight, understandable. For many, this is helpful. For others, however, it's not so helpful. In fact, it can even make them feel worse.
For one, more times than not, our loved one with depression has already been praying. I've worked with countless clients who told me they prayed more than anything else, yet their symptoms persisted. They interpret their continued symptoms as not them not trusting in God's plan. That their feelings are disrespectful considering how blessed they are. They express insurmountable guilt because the only rationale for their seemingly unanswered prayers is that their faith is not strong enough. So before you tell them to pray about it, consider that they have. That they are.
Also, telling someone with depression to "give it to God" can be quite invalidating. Again, if they're a religious or spiritually-based person, then they're most likely doing that. So, by saying this you're inadvertently missing an opportunity to provide support or comfort at that moment. Another important consideration is that not everyone shares the same spiritual or religious beliefs. Regardless, it's no question that your intentions are pure, and you sincerely want to help them by offering sound advice. After all, you have to say something, right?
Actually, you don't.
What Your Friend with Depression Really Needs
No matter how communicatively evolved we think we are, there is something about silence that makes us uncomfortable. We think if someone confides in us, then they must want some advice. So we pressure ourselves to find the right words at that moment. But what if there are no words? Would that be okay? Absolutely. We must learn to be okay with silence, we must resist the urge to fill the empty space of a verbal exchange with words of fluff. You have no idea how healing your presence alone can be. Honestly, you have no obligation to know or produce a solution - just listen to them.
And if you must say something, thank them for telling you and trusting you enough to talk about this with you.
You could take the opportunity to explore how long they've been feeling this way. You can ask them what they've done to try to cope with what they're feeling (you'll most likely hear that they've been praying 😉). You can even ask if there is anything you can do to help, but don't be surprised if they say "no" or "I don't know.” When this happens, remember to fight the urge to compensate for the uncomfortable feeling that will surely come about. These conversations are heavy.
If all else fails, try this: "Wow, I had no idea you were going through this. I can't imagine what you're feeling, but we'll get through this together.”
Trust me, that helps. Tremendously.
You could also inquire about their willingness to go to therapy. If they've never been, then they may not have considered it as an option or may feel ashamed to acknowledge that therapy could be beneficial. By initiating the topic, they'll likely feel less ashamed. Don't push the issue too heavily though if you sense they're not willing to talk about therapy as an option. Revisit it later when they're feeling a little better. Depression can severely impact a person's insight and judgment and is also characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness, so they may not feel their situation can improve.
So, just remember:
● It okay to remain silent, your presence is helpful in and of itself
● Resist the urge to offer blanket statements of advice
● Before asking if they've prayed, ask them what they've done or are presently doing to cope.
● Thank them for trusting you enough to talk about their problems with you.
● Initiate a conversation about therapy, even if you don't think it's helpful, everyone is different and they could benefit from psychotherapy. You initiating the conversations could reduce feelings of shame. Offer to help them find a therapist, sit with them when they make the call, offer to accompany them to their first session.
Depression can range from mild to severe and express itself differently in every person. It's a debilitating mental illness that no one wishes to have. It is a real disease that requires real treatment. And people suffering from depression can not just make themselves feel better by acknowledging all the reasons they "should be happy". If you still need help distinguishing depression from general sadness, check out my previous blog "A (quick) lesson on depression" by clicking here.
Bottom line, we all just want to help our loved ones through troubling times. It starts by redefining what help actually looks like.
Happy Healing and until next time,