Empathy can be difficult when you’re trying to understand something you have no experience with. We can understand lots of things intuitively and still have no real comprehension of what it’s like or how to deal with it in real life.
Depression is no different. While so many of us struggle with it, an added struggle is trying to explain it to people who have never experienced it. They just assume it’s about perspective and it doesn’t seem that serious. “Life is all about ups and downs you know?” “Just try a little harder,” they say.
I’m going to attempt an analogy that seems appropriate for my experience with depression and hope it might resonate with some of you who have never struggled with it.
I know all too well that rising feeling of drowning in depression. It’s like floating in a large lake where there isn’t a sidewall to grab ahold of, the boat is far away in the distance, and you’re sinking. Not quickly, but slowly, giving you time to think about why you didn’t just grab ahold of the boat, or why you didn’t bring a life jacket, or why you can’t just kick your legs so that you can at least stay above water a little longer.
The feeling of the water starting to trickle in your ears causes you to snap your mouth shut tightly. You start to feel the water approaching your nose and you instinctively hold your breath. At the same time you’re thinking, “Swim you idiot!” But for some reason your legs and arms won’t work. You know how to swim, you’ve done it in the past, but your limbs are full of lead and you just can’t today. It’s incredibly frustrating to try to convince yourself to do something you just can’t do, even though you know intuitively that you should be able to.
There are people on the banks of the lake who are genuinely worried and they’re shouting to you, “Just swim! Kick your legs!” And you’re sarcastically thinking, “No, really?” You’re so ashamed that you just can’t pull it together and get your dead legs to move. So you frantically look around for anything or anyone that might be able to help you and you realize, everyone else is too far away and they’re on land. You’re alone in the lake. Alone and drowning. You give one last mental push to get your legs to move. Nothing. After glancing around one more time, you just can’t take letting down all these people who want you to swim and you can’t make yourself do it. So you close your eyes and let yourself sink.
You might totally identify with this. I know some of you are nodding your heads, while others are scratching theirs. It’s so difficult to understand something like depression unless you’ve lived it. People who don’t understand it might think it’s an immature way of getting people’s attention or a lack of positive thinking. Maybe depression comes from a lack of faith in God or in His power to heal. I’ll tell you what it is. It’s a real feeling of being totally incapable. It’s feeling guilty about being incapable. It’s being ashamed that you can’t make yourself do anything or even care that you can’t. It’s a neurological problem.
Recently there was a great tragedy in our community when a loving wife and mother, battling postpartum depression and anxiety, gave up her life, leaving behind an adoring husband and 5 precious children. It literally eats at my soul how devastating this is and how real the feeling is, whether rational or not. We can look at it from the perspective of the people on the banks of the lake and say, “How tragic! How could she just give up? A little perspective could have changed it all. Had she realized how much she had going for her, maybe she wouldn’t have given up.”
It is easy, and natural, as people from the banks to say this. However, for this precious daughter of God, it wasn’t that easy.
This woman’s family has started a Facebook page called Nurture the Light that is aimed at raising awareness and helping others to understand how to help victims of depression and other mental illnesses.
One in seven women experience depression in the year after they give birth. This is frightening. For those of us who have experienced it, it might be a little comforting. We aren’t the only ones in the lake.
Some of these women have battled depression, or other mental health issues, for years. It is sometimes worsened after childbirth. Others have never had an episode until after having children. There are some women who also experience it during pregnancy. Depression rears its ugly head in so many different ways and seasons in life. It is different for everybody. What is similar though, are the feelings of helplessness and shame.
As the people on the banks, there are a few things we can do to try and help the drowning people in the lake. There are also some things we should definitely not do. Here are 10 Do’s and Don’ts for helping loved ones with depression.
1. Don’t place judgement
As illustrated in the analogy above, one of the worst things you can do is place more shame or guilt upon someone struggling with depression. If you make snide comments about how they look, act, are raising their kids, how ungrateful they are, or anything else about their life you are only dumping buckets of water on this person’s head. You may think you’re trying to get them to “wake up” but I assure you, you’re making the situation worse.
2. Do learn about depression and be compassionate
A little compassion can go a long way for someone with depression. Compassion will not come if you do not try to understand the illness. There are a million resources out there, from reputable people and organizations that are offering information about depression and how you can help. As soon as you lose the belief that this person can snap out of this fog on their own, you will be in a place to help.
3. Don’t make them feel like a project or burden
As people drowning in depression, the next worse thing you can do is focus so much attention on us that you make us feel like a project you are trying to fix. This just makes us feel like a burden because in our heads, there really isn’t any fixing. We start to feel guilty that you’re worrying so much so we try to shrink away in the hopes that you will focus on something else and move on with your life.
4. Do offer hope
One of the scariest things about depression is the belief that it will never end. Sometimes, instead of judgement, what a depressed person really needs to hear is that there is hope for them, a genuine reassurance that this will not last forever.
Encourage them to get professional help. Explain that you wish there was something you could do but you know even if you can’t, there are definitely professionals that are helping to treat depression in millions of other people everyday. There is no reason why those professionals can’t help them.
5. Don’t abandon them
Depressed people are hard to be around. Don’t think we don’t know it. That’s one of the hardest parts of depression. This simultaneous feeling of not wanting to burden anyone but also wanting companionship. When someone close to us says they just can’t handle our negativity it makes us feel like there is literally no one who can handle us. It’s hard to explain how alone that makes us feel.
6. Do love them
Never let them doubt of your love for them. Offer your encouragement in their choice of treatment, offer a listening ear, offer your hope for the future and your determination to stick by their side no matter what. Ask them what they really need, if they need you to stay or if they really just want to be alone. Offer help with mundane tasks and do it with complete and total selflessness. Any hint of grudge will heap on more guilt and shame for the depressed person. If you truly love them, you will continue to love them and make sure they’re aware of that.
7. Don’t ever take suicide lightly
If you get even a whiff that this person may be suicidal, do not take it lightly. It’s hard to do sometimes when people are constantly crying wolf and we sometimes interpret suicide threats as cries for attention. However, just remember you would never forgive yourself if you didn’t do something when you could have. The old adage, “Better safe than sorry” is the overarching belief we should all have when it comes to suicide.
8. Do take every precaution when it comes to suicide
I found this to be an excellent resource for recognizing a suicidal person or situation and how to deal with it. Get help and offer love, encouragement and hope in the meantime. Let them know that you are taking this seriously and that you are there for them.
9. Don’t give them treatment advice unless you are qualified to do so
Telling someone who is depressed that your great aunt’s brother cured his depression by drinking the blood of a skunk while standing on his head under the light of a full moon is not going to offer hope. While there are natural remedies that some people have found success with, it is more important to encourage someone to get professional help. Depression can be a complex problem that requires a complex solution. Professional treatment programs including medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes have proven over and over to be the most effective treatment for people with severe depression.
10. Do offer to help to find treatment
Sometimes the idea of setting up an appointment and doing all the little things required to actually make the appointment can be overwhelming for someone with depression. A little help from a loved one could make the difference between getting treatment and continually wallowing in the lake of depression. If you are willing to help search out a doctor, set up an appointment, and even take this person to their appointment, you may have done the most helpful thing anyone could do.
If you know someone who is struggling with depression I hope you realize how much influence you can have on them, either for better or worse. Sometimes it can make us feel helpless when someone we love is struggling with something we don’t understand. Have patience, have faith that the Lord can help you know the best way to help this person, and don’t give up.
* * * * *
What are your suggestions for being there for someone with depression?