“How should we treat a friend or family member with depression?”
Depression is more than an occasional feeling of sadness. We all have days when we wake up not feeling our best, tired, moody, or irritable. Depression is a debilitating condition in which a feeling of sadness persists for a considerable period of time. Some of the symptoms of depression are a lack of energy, a disinterest in the things of life (perhaps what used to give pleasure no longer does so), a paralyzing sense of fear and a general feeling of sadness. Depression can even have physical symptoms such as heart palpitations and headaches. Depression often makes a person unable to concentrate, unable to work, or unable to function in life.
To make matters worse, no one knows for sure the cause of depression. Some depression is thought to be a chemical imbalance in the brain. There are various hormones in the brain which regulate mood or happiness levels. When they become imbalanced, depression may be the result. That kind of depression may (or may not) respond to medication designed to restore the balance. Other depression is (an often improper or inordinate) reaction to trauma, such as grief, stress, postnatal depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression because of unemployment, marriage difficulties, family difficulties, relationship break up, etc. Any negative event, if not properly processed, can lead to depression. There probably are spiritual causes of depression also. There can be no doubt that sin is a factor in depression. That does not mean, of course, that depression is God’s punishment for a specific sin, but depression is part of life in this sinful world. And depression can be a sinful response to affliction. Since the exact causes of depression are unknown, there is no known cure, and treatment options vary in their success rates.
How should we respond?
Sometimes, our reaction to another person’s depression is impatience. “Why can’t he snap out of it?” “Why doesn’t she get over it?” “Pull yourself together!” Never utter those words to a depressed person, even when you become frustrated! A depressed person simply cannot pull himself together or get over it. How he wishes that he could!
A depressed family member or friend, especially a fellow saint with depression, is a cast down or disquieted soul (Ps. 42:5, 11; 46:5). Such a saint needs compassion. Such a saint is afflicted, and how do we treat afflicted saints? We pray for them. We visit them. We help them. We pray with them. We read scripture to and with them. We encourage them. In many ways, we do this with depressed saints, who have a particular kind of affliction.
Depression can often respond well to counseling. Therefore, it is important to encourage a depressed saint to consult his pastor or a Christian counselor. They may be able to identify the underlying cause, and they will apply the comfort of the gospel to the broken hearted. The depressed saint is a “bruised reed” whom Christ will not break (Matt. 12:20). You, his concerned friend or family member, must remind and assure him of that.
A depressed saint often feels hopeless, is very quickly overwhelmed, and needs constant assurance and encouragement. When he cannot go on, you must bear his burdens (Gal. 6:2). When he cannot read, you should read to him. When he cannot pray, you should pray with him and for him. When he expresses despair, gently remind him of the promises of the gospel. When he lashes out in anger, gently rebuke and admonish him, and forgive him. Encourage him to take little steps. Go for walks with him. Take him out for coffee. Go swimming with him. Play a game with him. Give him your time. Include him in your life in little things. But do not expect him to do too much too soon, or you will add to his stress and overwhelm him.
The greatest fear of a depressed person is often, sadly, a self-fulfilling prophecy. He fears being abandoned. He fears that he will drive others away, even as he pushes them away. A depressed person needs to know that you understand and sympathize. He needs to know that you are there for him. He already feels that he has let everyone down, that he is a burden on his friends and family, and therefore his reaction could well be to isolate himself further. When he does that, draw him out (gently). Include him. Let him know that he is important to you. Greet him. Show him love. None of this is easy, because the depressed person may not respond to your love, and he may even resist your love. You may become weary with loving him and feel like giving up. If the love seems one-sided, let it be one-sided. Your calling is not to be loved, but to love. “Charity [love] suffereth long, and is kind … [love] beareth all things, believeth all things, endureth all things” (I Cor. 13:4, 7).