BCC Staff Note: You’re reading the first in a four-part BCC Grace & Truth blog series on biblical counseling and depression. Few issues are more painful. God’s Word provides us with wisdom for addressing depression with compassion so we can care well and wisely.
Helping the Helper
An experienced counselor once told me something that really made sense. “You can’t counsel someone who is not there.”
The advice came as I was telling him about a situation where someone was asking me how to help a friend battling depression. This well-intentioned person wanted answers he could bring to his friend that would spring him from his debilitating struggle. He wanted info to pass on, some insight that would unlock the depression problem. However, the long, slow, aching experience of depression defies quick fixes and easy cures. And it frustrates everyone involved.
One of the foundational principles of biblical counseling is that we are helping people embedded in some type of relational context. With depression counseling, in particular, I’ve learned that much of my ministry over time will be to the relational network around a depressed person. My help to a depressed person is sometimes most felt by those friends and family members who either by circumstance or choice find themselves groping in the darkness of a loved one’s depression.
So how do we help those who are trying to help with depression? Here are some ways we can serve.
Recognize and acknowledge the different stakes in the experience.
All those close to a depressed person want to help, but not everyone for the same reasons. Some are there because they choose to be; but many are there (spouse, parents, children, etc.) because they’ve been thrust into a circumstance they can’t resolve. Where people see themselves in relationship to a depressed person has a profound effect on their resolve and investment in the care required over time.
Perspective is crucial and information is key.
We all have different ideas of what depression is, how it works and what makes a difference. A shared body of good information and perspective on the physical, mental, situational, and spiritual aspects of depression can help immensely in communication. For Christians, this should include (perhaps most importantly) sound biblical handles on what may be happening, and a consistent gospel lens so that faith, hope, and love are not casualties of the trial.
Depression ministry is siege warfare.
My friend Barb Hyatt is a counselor with many years ministering to depressed people. She hit it right when she told me that, “It can be depressing caring and living with a depressed family member.”
The unforeseeable future and the lack of any evidence of change in a depressed person’s outlook will be discouraging. Relational attrition—the loss or withdrawal of people from the front line of care—is almost inevitable.
Help the person’s relational network balance the hard fight of ministry so that no one is feeling the full weight of care alone. Help those who are tempted to just “back off” find small ways to express care and stay invested in the process. Maybe most helpful, gather together regularly in prayer for the struggling friend—and for each other.
Be a safety net.
Family and friends can function as a safety net for a person in depression. They need to consciously see this as part of their role. If a person has been prescribed medication, are they taking it appropriately? Are there side effects or drug interactions that might be affecting the person? How is the person sleeping? Do you see any changes that seem like a further downward spiral? Are they withdrawing? Does the person struggling have someone (a pastor, a counselor) whose function is to specifically help them deal with their depression? How is that relationship working?
And, most crucial, if someone begins to use language that says they want to give up or end it all, what should you do? Do those around that person have a plan or a protocol they’ve all agreed to follow if concerns about suicide become an issue? Do they know what to look for and how to respond? Counselors can provide significant linkage and support in the safety net of a depressed person’s life.
Listen and converse.
My counselor friend Barb had some great thoughts on this: “Your presence and love and acceptance are most important. Try to understand what he or she is thinking and feeling. Ask questions to clarify, not simply to challenge.
You can validate that they are feeling very sad or are in severe emotional pain. You cannot change their thoughts or feelings. It will help him or her to verbalize thoughts and feelings, and may lead eventually to alternate views. You don’t have to tell them to hope, but you can say you have hope for them.”
Be okay with small normals.
In a sense, depression is one part of normal human experience—sadness—overtaking a life. Ultimately, the lifting of a depression may not look like “happy.” It may look like an ability for other aspects of “normal” to increasingly express themselves in a depressed person’s daily life.
Family and friends can encourage this. Talk about normal things, watch movies, listen to music, take walks, encourage small steps, recount shared memories. Depression says, “You are not worth the space you take up.” Relationship says, “You are important to who we all are.” That is the normal they need to hear from us.
Join the Conversation
If you are counseling family and friends of a person struggling with depression, how aware are you of the social and relational network of the person you’re trying to help?
What is your role there? How can you serve the many who are seeking to live with the one?
If you’re not doing this valuable ministry, who can help them care well in the cloudy shadows of depression?