I have seen lots of the sort of lists I’ve made, saying what some of the worst things we can say when someone we know is depressed, but I haven’t seen quite so many about what we can say. I wrote a piece called 8 Ways To Help When Someone is Mentally Ill, which I’d also point you to, but this is a simple list of things that can help.
1) I love you, and I’m not going anywhere.
One of the features of my illness is that I start to feel completely unlovable, the worst person in the world, deserving of nothing but hatred. I start feeling as though my friends are merely pitying me, at best, that they do not really care about me, because why would they like someone as unpleasant as me? Having a friend tell me that no matter what I do or say they are going to stay my friend, that even though I don’t find myself lovable, they do, really helps. I may not believe it – I may even deny it, but somewhere inside, it helps.
2) Call me any time you want to talk.
I am not the world’s best phone person, and I don’t really like talking on the phone. In fact, I’m really a text person. However, to have someone say that they will listen whenever I want, that they are available to help me bear the weight of the depression that has overtaken me, is wonderful. I may just be able to text you, when a conversation would probably be better, but I find it easier to express myself in written words than in conversation, I find it easier to bare my soul and tell you I need help. If you say that you will be there for someone, be sure you mean it, because reaching out in the dead of night for help, only to be told it is too late/you aren’t available, can hurt. If you feel that it is becoming draining, dealing with late night calls or texts, then tell your friend – say, I need to get up for work, so can we text/call during the day, and be attentive when you do. I understand that it is hard to be contacted by someone in pain all of the time and it can consume your friendship, for a time, but regular contact is always helpful.
3) I can’t really understand what you are feeling, but I care about you and we’ll ride this out together.
Even for those of us who have been depressed it is hard to understand another person’s depression. It feels so personal, and we too easily fall into the trap of saying that we know all about it, that it is not that bad. Sometimes just acknowledging the person’s pain and saying that while we don’t understand, we will be there for them, no matter what, is better than pretending we know all the answers. It is part of compassion, to me, to know that we cannot feel another’s pain, but only observe and sympathise from the sidelines.
4) God loves you – even if it doesn’t feel like he does right now.
As Christians, we do need a response to pain, but we shouldn’t spout off glib phrases. When I am depressed I do not feel that God loves me, and the promises of the Bible can seem like a hollow joke. Don’t labour the point, but pointing out that God does care helped me – even though my response to that at the time was to think, Of course he doesn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t feel like this.
5) I think you need to see a doctor.
Many people suffer in silence, needlessly. There are people who are frightened of being diagnosed with a mental disorder, frightened that their employer will somehow find out and sack them, frightened of taking pills in case they get addicted. When we are sick, we need a doctor, and one of the best things you can do for your friend is to persuade them to seek medical help. It won’t be an instant cure, but it will be a step toward healing. Be careful to say it in such a way that it doesn’t seem like you are saying “You are mad, therefore you need to be seen to.” Putting it on the same level as having something physically wrong, perhaps flu, or a chest infection – you would seek medical attention for these, therefore you should also seek it for depression.
6) Say nothing.
Sometimes saying anything is too much. I remember my friend, when I was really ill, invited me round to her house and made me a coffee, and I don’t think we even talked. It was a time of silence that felt like healing to me, I was just able to rest in our friendship, just sit there with someone who cared for me – and who cared for me enough to not try and solve my problems.
Along the lines of the one above, for some people a hug and a shoulder to cry on can be the best thing. I think, now, with certain of my friends, if I am not well I just want a cuddle, and not talking but just touching can be restful. However do be careful, because up until a few years ago and still with certain people I was not a tactile person and would have been horrified by a hug. Go carefully, because a sudden hug can be frightening, and touch can feel like an invasion. I would only hug certain people in my life if they were unwell, the people that I know would appreciate it.
8) Sorry to hear you’ve been unwell.
If you have a colleague, a relative, who has a mental illness then treating it as just another illness, rather than a scary mad disease, can normalise the experience. I know I have at times felt like a leper, like someone with a shameful disease, and that is partly caused by people’s un-ease over mental health.
In general, be honest with those you know who are suffering: admit that you don’t know that much about what they are going through, but tell them what they mean to you. Saying – repeatedly – that you care about them, that they mean something to you can start to break through the terrible thoughts that depression can bring. To be reminded that we are not worthless, that we are loved, can help a lot. Some of the most important words we can say are not words at all, but action – and a hug, a space to listen and be heard, a healing silence can be balm to the soul. Pray often – you do not need to do so over the person, as many would not appreciate it at that time, but do pray, and do continue to love and show your love for that person in as many ways as you know how. Be honest, be loving, be a friend to someone in trouble.
- 4 Things Not To Say to a Depressed Christian (believersbrain.com)
- How to Help Someone with Depression (psychologytoday.com)
- Eight Ways Preachers Harm The Depressed In Their Preaching (via David Murray) (garyware.me)
- Love is Louder Than Self-Harm: A 13-year-old’s Anti-Suicide Letter. (elephantjournal.com)