I am not an expert. I offer spiritual care, but not medical care. Although I have visited, supported and prayed for people struggling with mental illness, I do not have any fancy certificates to hang on my office wall saying that I am a qualified therapist. And yet, as someone who has suffered through several bouts of clinical depression in the past ten years, I have gained some insight into the kind of help that is (and isn’t) useful.
To begin with, mental illness is a thing—a very real thing that messes up the brains of otherwise healthy, intelligent people. There are people and organizations in Canada working to bring this issue out into the open, and with good reason. I can attest to the fact that it causes all kinds of physical and emotional suffering, damages relationships, slows careers and harms families. It’s lousy.
You might know someone who is suffering right now. Perhaps you are a caregiver or a professional or a next door neighbour, and I appreciate that you want to help them. That is a beautiful thing. But first, I want you to consider something. There is a tendency with health care professionals, friends and well-meaning loved ones to offer support that sounds like this: You know what will help? You need to __________ (fill in the blank).
You. The depressed one. The suffering one. The weak one who can’t even put her makeup on without crying. Yes, you really should get right on that. All by yourself.
I know that there are many strategies that will help: fresh air, exercise, therapy, drugs (the list goes on) and I don’t want to downplay those strategies. But when the onus is automatically placed on the one who is suffering there are two problems.
The first is that the person struggling with depression probably doesn’t have the energy. He or she may not have the brain power to look up a phone number, call and talk to a receptionist, and figure out transportation to that appointment. Or she might be too busy lying in bed sobbing to be able to go for that healthy walk or cook up a quick batch of lentil stew. Chances are good that if you ask a depressed person to go and do something—especially something big or that they don’t normally do—they aren’t going to do it.
The second problem is this: it very quietly blames and isolates the victim. No one really means to do that when they suggest exercise or seeing a therapist. Those are great ideas. But placing the onus on the patient communicates that they are the ones who got themselves into this mess, and they are the only ones who can get themselves out.
One of the best things we can offer someone who is suffering from depression is the gift of presence. Sometimes that just means hugging them while they cry. Other times it means saying, “I will go with you,” or “I will make the phone call for you.” It means recognizing that the person you love cannot get out of this mess by themselves. Frankly, if that was true they would have done it already.
Of course this is not the easiest gift to give. It requires time, courage, and the willingness to be uncomfortable. People who are depressed can be sad and angry. They can be weak and frustrating. They might receive your help grudgingly and without thanks (although they may well be very grateful much farther down the road). A depressed person is not always a fun person to hang around with.
This is one of the most painful parts of depression. It makes someone feel as if they are terribly alone, even if they’re not. And when those they love tell them that all they need to do is give it a good old college try alone, it only isolates them further.
So if you want to offer comfort, hope, help and healing to someone you know, I have some ideas about where to start. This is just the beginning. I know you will have other amazing ideas to add.
- It would be great to talk. Why don’t you get your shoes and we’ll go for a walk outside together while we chat?
- Do you need help eating well? I could make you soup. I will bring it over later today and we can have lunch together.
- Maybe it’s time for more help. Can we book an appointment with the doctor for you? I will be happy to drive.
- What do you have coming up that you are looking forward to? Could we make plans for something good? Let’s call and book ____________.
- I know you usually find a bath comforting. Why don’t I run a tub for you while you find your bathrobe?
- Do you need groceries? We can register online and get them delivered to your house.
Did you notice that every suggestion offers to take at least some of the responsibility? They also include a question, which respects the fact that your loved one may or may not find your idea helpful. They involve being with you care about. Because no matter who we are or what we’re up against in life, we need each other.
If you are the one who needs help because you are depressed, know that this is not your fault. No matter how alone you feel there are people who want to help you, even if they don’t quite know how.
And if you want to help someone you love who is suffering, I hope that this list helps you understand a little better what it’s like to be on the other side of depression. Thank you for caring enough, and begin courageous enough, to reach out.
Sometimes depression and other forms of mental illness can be severe. If your life or someone else’s is at risk, please gather up your courage and phone a local helpline or even 911. Even when symptoms are mild, getting good help can keep someone from getting worse. Please reach out and connect with a health care provider, spiritual leader, or social worker.