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QUICK OVERVIEW: We all know someone who is fighting depression. People from all walks of life and in every season of life can struggle with this. It affects so many people, whether directly or indirectly, that it surprises me that we have such a hard time talking about it and knowing how to respond to it. Often, we default to one of the following responses. For some, panic ensues because they know they do not know what to say and they would rather not be in the conversation anymore. Some pull out a trite cliché like, “tomorrow is a new day” or “just think happy thoughts.” And many make a face that looks like they were just told the person has a week to live. They follow it up with an obnoxious “are you okay?” because they assume that all depressed people are in danger of damaging themselves if not suicidal. Honestly, one if not all of those have been your response at one point or another.
How we talk to and treat people (with or with out depression) can make a huge difference. That is why we compiled a list of suggestions on how to bring uplifting energy to others. How not to, at best, be another well-meaning but ultimately disappointing confidant, and at worst, someone who hinders rather than helps. In this article we will give you three very simple tips on how to communicate to, and bring help that is actually helpful, to the depressed.
Three Keys to Being Uplifting:
- Be Present – Give them your time, yourself, more than your words.
- Be Informed – All depression does not end in suicidal attempts.
- Be Real – Skip the pretending and do your best to understand them.
Looking for More? Keep reading.
Written By Kendra Hamby
GO DEEPER: (Read “QUICK SUMMARY” FIRST.) You should know before we dive in, that what you can/should say will depend on the kind of relationship you have with the person. If you have not built up a rapport with them, or do not have the type of relationship that gives unquestioning unconditional love, you cannot expect them to bear their souls to you. Most of these tips are widely usable but be careful not to overstep your bounds.
Another slight disclaimer, a bit further down I am going to encourage you to be blunt. I do not mean to give you license to be a jerk. Know that your words are powerful, and you have the ability to make someone feel loved and cared for, or like they are a burden, often despite your intentions. If you are not sure if it is a good moment for bluntness, default to the other suggestions. If you are not sure you have the relationship status needed for candor, do not do it. You should use wisdom in any conversation with other people (“relational intelligence”) and always speak blessings not cursing (James 3:10).
Flowers and Friendship
So for starters, and especially if you are not super close, just remember to “KISS” them! Not physically, that is just weird! I mean the acronym – Keep It Simple Stupid. Talk to them like a normal human, since that is what they are! Do not treat them with kid gloves or talk down to them like they are fragile. If your end goal to the conversation is to “fix” their depression, then do not. Just move on, or change your goal. Talk to them with the end goal of learning one more thing about them or to just make them smile. If you know they like a particular type of candy, get it just because. Buy flowers, just because. Knowing someone took the time to know something about you and then get you something for no reason other than “I was thinking of you,” is huge! It makes them feel valued and cared for, which is often a direct afront to what is behind the depression. Without a word you have stood with them and fought for them. Which leads to our next point…
1. Be Present
Depression will tell you that no one loves you. Be the person that convinces them that their depression is wrong! Talking to someone with depression is a lot less about what you say and a lot more about what you do. Call to chat or hang out, just because. I have used “just because” quite a few times at this point. Why? Because it makes a big impact. It means you care. It means you are not talking to them because you feel obligated due to their “condition.” It means you took time for them when they often do not feel worthy of your time.
Do not say anything about what they are going through. What?! You mean I do not have to ask about their depression every day, or make sure they are happy? No, you do not. In fact, you should not. They do not need a reminder that they are fighting this battle, they need a reprieve from it. So, unless they bring it up or you are genuinely concerned by their tone, just be present. Most of the time they need to know they are loved, cared for, thought of, and not abandoned.
Depression will tell you that no one loves you. Be the person that convinces them that their depression is wrong!
Contrary to popular belief, you do not have to say much. A lot of times they do not need advice or anything from you other than your ear. Depression speaks lies into the silence and forces you to sit there and rehearse them back to yourself until you believe them with all your heart. Often, what people need is to be heard, to have a safe space to speak the lies out into light. To not be alone with their thoughts. Unfortunately, the lies of depression make people uncomfortable so finding someone willing to listen to the darkness and respond with, love, acceptance, and reality, is difficult. Be someone’s sounding board, and then continue to treat them like you did before, do not let it change the relationship. If you have to say something, say, “wow that sucks” or “I hope my listening helped, I’m always here to listen.” Not everyone can be this person and that is okay. But if you can be, know you are invaluable, and greatly needed.
Depression speaks lies into the silence and forces you sit there and rehearse them back to yourself until you believe it with all your heart.
Here is a quick primer on listening. First, if your mind is rehearsing a response, you are not listening. The best way I know to combat this is to discipline yourself to repeat what they said before you respond. “This is what I’m hearing you say, am I getting that right?” “It sounds to me like you are suggesting…” “So what you are feeling is… Did I hear/understand you correctly.” The question does more than help you understand them. Hearing it back may help them understand themselves better. It may help them realize something they had not yet realized. And having to repeat or clarify what they said for you may help a depressed person gain clarity about their own thoughts and feelings that they did not have. Do not try to respond until you have accurately understood them. That also makes them feel valued and noticed and affirmed.
Second, respond to the truth or deception rather than to their emotions. Emotions are amoral. There are no “wrong” emotions. Never tell someone they should not feel a certain way. Address the lie they hold or the truth they missed. Give them a different perspective. Help them change their internal script by suggesting a different way to talk to themselves about things.
There are no “wrong” emotions. Never tell someone they should not feel a certain way. Address the lie they hold or the truth they missed.
Third, do not overwhelm them with too many ideas. Come back over and over to a single truth, or persistent lie. At some point you may need to stop and just do the listening part. Your response will become your listening. “I think I get what you are feeling.” “I can see how that would make you feel…” Again, do not try to “fix” them. People do not want to feel like they are your personal project. People are individuals who need to be loved as they are. If you feel awkward around them and cannot help but try to relieve yourdiscomfort, leave. It is not about you either avoiding the awkward you feel or notching your proverbial belt with another rescue.
2. Be Informed
Just because it is a mental illness does not mean it is all in their head. Depression is very real and should be treated as such. By acting like depression is not as real as a physical illness, you are conveying a few messages. One, that they are faking it for attention and there is nothing really wrong with them. Two, it is their fault they are like this, and they have no one to blame but themselves. And three, that they should be able to just get over it. This makes people feel like they are broken or a burden. Depression does not inherently mean they are suicidal, but this is the kind of treatment that can push them over the edge. Let me reiterate, “depression does not inherently mean they are suicidal.” Please do not act like every depressed person is one episode away from “tell my friends and family I’m sorry.”
Getting medical help is nothing to be ashamed of but they probably feel like it is. Do not perpetuate this lie with pitied looks and questioning comments. Be supportive. And if I could talk to the Christians in the room for a minute. None of this means that a person has less faith. Christians can and do fight depression. Telling people that they need “more faith” or “more Jesus” is not helpful, even if it may, to some degree, be technically true. This is probably one of those things that is actually damaging. I am not saying that God will not or cannot free people from their depression or that they cannot find victory with his help. I am saying they do not need you throwing guilt and shame in their faces. Most likely, they already know every frustrating cliché, have heard them all, recently, and have even spoken them to themselves in condemning self-abuse.
3. Be Real
People who fight depression often feel as if everyone is walking on eggshells around them. This makes them feel like they are in the way and it would be better for them to be alone. So, they do not want your pity. They do not want “you poor thing“ treatment and they do not need to be encouraged in their depression by someone adding to it with sugary fake platitudes or advice that does not come either from experience or a loving heart.Do not make them feel like you are afraid they are about to jump off a ledge at any second (chances are they are not). If you do not understand, say so. Ask them to help you understand better. Not with more depression creating scripts but by trying to get in touch with their emotions. Understanding their fear, worry, paralysis, and self-defeating thoughts can help you grasp what they are experiencing better and give help that is real help.
They do not need you to imply that they should see life as all hunky-dory or try to make them feel better about their situation. They may just need you to sit with them in the mess and agree that it sucks (Romans 12:15). If and when they do need help out of their mess, do not sugar coat it. Tell it like it is, sometimes you might need to be pushy. Again they do not want to feel like a fragile porcelaindoll. And again, this one only works if you have a deep personal relationship with the person. If you do not, just stick with flowers and friendship.
They may just need you to sit with them in the mess and agree that it sucks.
In the end, a lot of what I have said boils down to this, they do not want to be treated differently. Think of it this way: Have you ever had a day where everything seemed to be against you and you got so frustrated that you finally uncharacteristically snapped. Everyone spent the rest of the day kind of keeping their distance in order to not set you off again? Did that perhaps just remind you of your embarrassing outburst and make you feel worse? Would it not have been better for everyone to just act normal so you can maybe salvage what is left of the day? Or maybe if someone had brought you a coffee and took a second to just chat and laugh with you, giving you a momentary step back from the mess?
The Best Help
This article addresses how to be of some real help when in their presence. And when to not be in their presence! Remember that the best way to help is to pray for them when in your own time of conversation with God. Go back to HERE (include link to my article on Colossians) for some direction on how to pray “meaty” prayers with real substance for them. When in private, you can say anything you want and pray whatever you feel on their behalf. Just do not talk that into your chats with them if it violates any of these guidelines we have shared. They need you. With them, for them, not against them, in person and in prayer.
If you feel you would like to talk to someone about questions or struggles this article may have surfaced for you, go to the Two Rivers Counseling Center’swebsite and look around at what we do, or go directly to the “Get Counseling” request form HERE.