People ask me what they can do to help a depressed friend or loved one. It’s a tricky question, and one that I can’t claim a definitive, solid answer for every single person battling depression. All I can do is answer from my perspective. And please note, my perspective regarding friendship may be different tomorrow. That’s one of the things about mental illness. Like I wrote in my new book Still Life, A Memoir of Living Fully with Depression, “I am information that changes daily.” -Page 117
- Avoid Christian platitudes.
People flippantly recite verses or say things like ‘God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” This isn’t helpful. The words aren’t true encouragement but often times a spiritual band aid when someone doesn’t know what to say or doesn’t really want to get involved.
There are people who truly want to encourage through scripture and friendship. But the difference is motivation. I have a friend who left a container of verses on my doorstep that now sits on my desk. When I need to hear from God but can’t manage to open the Bible, I pull out a verse and read it. I know my friend’s heart with this gift. She wants me to know I am not alone and gently points me to Christ.
- Affirm the illness.
Don’t judge or assume that if your friend can’t ‘pull her life together’ then she just isn’t trying hard enough. Depression isn’t laziness or a lack of faith. It is a disease that requires treatment and care. if you don’t believe it, get educated. There are various sites online that offer up-to-date, factual information about mental illness.
- Don’t continually offer advice.
Several people have suggested that more time outside might help, or that I should try a certain homeopathic remedy, and to make sure I am getting enough exercise. Again, I believe that many of these suggestions come from places of love. But if a person has been battling a serious illness, you can be certain that she has heard about and probably attempted many of these suggestions. She may even have already added one or more to her personal treatment plan. Either way, you are not an expert. If you had a friend with cancer, you would not tell them what they should or shouldn’t do to heal.
- Reach out.
Depression is a lonely, isolating illness. I don’t have the mental, emotional, and physical capacity to spend time with people in and just after a depressive episode. If you have a friend who rejects your invitations to meet in person, there are other creative ways to show you care. Mail a card. Drop off a meal. Take the kids for an afternoon. Reach out via text, simply letting them know you are thinking about them and that there is no need to respond. Here’s a warning: don’t reach out too often because that may add more stress and get in a person’s life..
- Challenge when appropriate.
I don’t think a friend, depending on how close she is, should always stay away and follow the lead of the person with depression. Of course, this subject is delicate and nuanced. It absolutely depends on the relationship and the seriousness of the depressive episode. But for a lot of us, our normal becomes ‘don’t say yes,’ ‘don’t do things,’ ‘be careful.’ These thoughts become defense mechanisms to self protect or attempts at laying low to stave off another episode. But as a friend, it can be healthy to say, ‘you seem to be doing better lately, let’s meet for coffee,’ or ‘I think you should attend that meeting unless you absolutely cannot.’ If she agrees to an outing but is unsure about it, offer to take responsibility for conversation and let them know that silence is fine. An allotted time is helpful as well. Go for an hour and see what happens.
- Initiate help for self harm.
If your friend talks about self harm or suicide, let someone know. Call a close family member, their physician, go to the nearest emergency room, or even contact a suicide hotline. Once a person starts speaking about suicide, especially about any type of plan, it is appropriate and crucial to step in and step on toes to get help.
For Gillian Marchenko, “dealing with depression” means learning to accept and treat it as a physical illness. In Still Life she describes her journey through various therapies and medications to find a way to live with depression. She faces down the guilt of a wife and mother of four, two with special needs. How can she care for her family when she can’t even get out of bed? Her story is real and raw, not one of quick fixes. But hope remains as she discovers that living with depression is still life.