Helping a Depressed Friend or Family Member

Before we can help someone close to us who may be suffering from depression we must make sure we understand exactly what depression is. Depression exists on a continuum from “the blues” or “the blahs” to significant depression or even suicidal feelings.  While sin can lead to depression, being depressed is not a sin or an indication of being out of fellowship with God. In the Bible, Godly people such as David, Moses, Jeremiah, and even the Lord Jesus Christ, at times felt depressed and downcast.  In Psalm 42:5, David wrote, “Why are you cast down all my soul, and why are you disquieted within me? Hope in God, for I shall yet praise him, the health of my countenance.”

You may find it helpful to be aware of symptoms of depression. The following symptoms, listed by the Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
  • Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in most normal activities
  • Insomnia, or sleeping too much, including awakening during the night and being unable to go back to sleep
  • Tiredness, lack of energy, changes in appetite, anxiety, agitation, restlessness
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Frequent or recurrent mention of death, suicidal thoughts, or suicide attempts

Getting started

The most important step is to simply be there for that depressed person. Before they begin to condemn him, Job’s three friends “… Made an appointment together to come and mourn with him, and to comfort him…. They sat down with him seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his grief was very great.” (Job 2:11-13) Often we feel like we have to be able to say something profound, or that will provide important insight or even turn things around. Actually, our presence communicates our compassion, even without words.

However, there is a place for encouraging words, even if we aren’t quite sure what to say. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance suggests some ways to begin a conversation with someone who is depressed:

  • “I’ve been feeling concerned about you lately”
  • “Recently I’ve noticed some differences in you, and just wondered how you are doing”
  • “I wanted to check in with you; I’ve noticed you seem pretty down lately”

The following questions may be helpful once a conversation is begun:

  • “When did you begin feeling like this?”
  • “Did something happen that caused you to feel this way?”
  • “How can I best be of support to you right now?”
  • “Have you thought about getting help?”

The book of Proverbs points out that affirming words can be like “Apples of gold in settings of silver.” (Prov. 25:11) The following affirming suggestions can be of help:

  •  “I want you to know, you’re not alone in this. I’m here for you”
  •  “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I do care about you”
  •  “I want you to know that I’m praying for you, that you’ll be feeling better soon.”
  •  “You are important to me; your life is important to me.”
  •  “What can I do right now to help you?”

The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance recommends that we avoid saying things like:

“Just look on the bright side.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“We all go through times like this,” or

“Shouldn’t you be better by now?”

While it is important to say the appropriate thing, it is of even greater importance to be a good listener. James 1:19 reminds us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger. I do not think it was by accident that God gave us two ears and one tongue! Very few things communicate affirmation more than focused listening. During their early time with him, Job’s friends listened to his lament. It was not until they begin sharing their criticisms that they went from encouragers to discouragers.

Additional steps to help

1.     Be persistent in encouraging the depressed individual to seek appropriate help.  Often the individual will feel like he or she should be able to overcome their depression without help. On the other hand, they may believe the situation is hopeless and seeking help pointless. So when the person is at first resistant, be gracious but persistent.

2.     Offer to help your depressed loved one find a doctor or therapist. Be willing to help set an appointment, and even go with them for the initial visit.

3.     Provide practical help as you are able, without over-extending yourself. It is important to recognize that we all have limits on what we can do to help others. Allowing yourself to become stressed to the point of burnout will not help your friend or family member.

4.     Daily prayer for the depressed individual is crucial. James 5:16 reminds us that the effective, fervent prayer of a righteous person really works. So seek the Lord on behalf of your depressed friend or family member, and continue praying, since Luke 18:1 reminds us to “…always pray, and never give up.”

5.     Enlist others to be of encouragement. When a depressed person hears encouragement from several people, and more than once, that can make a difference.

6.     If you suspect that a person is suicidal, don’t be afraid to ask, “Are you having suicidal thoughts?”  Some people think that by bringing up the subject you will put the idea in their mind. The reality is, by bringing up the subject, you are likely to relieve some of the pressure a seriously depressed person who has begun entertaining thoughts of suicide may be feeling.

7.     Remember the biblical mandate to “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). What depressed individuals need most is a loving, reassuring presence—not a sermon, not a deep theological insight, not even pious platitudes. One way we spell love for people is T-I-M-E. Job’s friends interrupted their schedule, communicated their intention to come to visit Job, and they kept their commitment to come. In their initial visit, they provided two things: they mourned with him, and they encouraged him.

When someone close to you has become depressed, even if it makes you feel uncomfortable, be there for them. That’s the essence of encouragement, and the essential step toward helping an individual who is struggling with depression.  May God use these thoughts to motivate us to be that present encourager when a friend or family member is going through depressing circumstances.