Could you share some practical advice for the friends of those who are struggling with anxiety and depression? What should we do and what should we not do to best encourage our brother/sister during such dark seasons?
A great question, and thank you for caring to ask! You’re already an awesome friend for it. Thank you also for not diminishing the issue: anxiety and depression are very real, not just “in your head,” and can be completely debilitating.
Much of this will be common sense, but since I also struggle with depression, I have a bit of firsthand knowledge of being on the other side.
First, what NOT to do:
1) Please, no inspirational pick-me-up cliched lectures.
In fact, let’s also skip the innocent sharing of Bible verses. When someone is anxious or depressed, there’s a crazy-thick shell around their ears that deflects pretty much anything, or will somehow reverse words into something worse.
What’s needed is presence. Even silence. When Job got totally blown up and lost everything, the best thing his friends did (until they began to lecture him for 30-something chapters) is sat with him in silence for a week.
Please do not jump immediately to spiritual, practical, biblical monologues. Please do not try to instantly relate and say, “Yeah that reminds me this one time when I also …” Don’t point to a website or a Bible verse or a doctor (there’s a time for that). It can be very insensitive and it’s also a huge reason why Christians in particular look like robotic cheerleading machines.
2) Invite them out to something fun.
Most people who are Type-A “Fixer” personalities assume that when someone is hurting, then that is ALL they should talk about. A Fixer presumes that if they just dig enough, use surgical words, have a caring tone, and press persistently, then we can get to the “root of the issue” and be done with it like a math problem.
While part of this is very true and noble, an anxious or depressed person is NOT only composed of their issues. They are a whole person with likes, dislikes, wants, needs, dreams, hobbies, goals. They also sometimes just want to eat a burger, watch a dumb movie, replay a YouTube video, listen to loud music, lose at bowling, fall down in a skating rink, catch a frisbee, run a mile, or drink hot cocoa. Ask them: If you could do whatever right now, what do you want to do? Then go do that with them.
Eventually you can get to the root stuff, but keep a holistic picture in mind. When I was at the bottom of depression, I didn’t talk to the guy who kept poking at my hard heart. I opened up to the ones who brought me candy and their dog to my house. This is not shallow: because real human beings need a day off, even from their own brains.
3) Overjoyed cheerfulness to compensate does not help.
I’ve met some people who assume that an opposite attitude will lift someone out of anxiety/depression. So “confidence” can somehow counter an anxious attitude, or “super-cheerful-perkiness” can attack depression.
No. I understand the reasoning behind this, but in the long-term it’s actually very painful. I mean if you told me you wanted to cut yourself and I said, “There’s a sale on belts at Saks!” — that will hurt deep.
It’s okay to get on the same wavelength even when you don’t understand their pain. In psychology they falsely teach you to remain distant, detached, and emotionless when you counsel. That doesn’t help either. It’s okay to cry together, to agree that life sucks sometimes, to feel their anger, to share their concerns. It will drain you a bit, but that’s part of being a friend and a Christian servant.
Here’s stuff to consider that you can do:
1) RTP — Rock The Prayer
When the time is right, pray for them on the spot. I know many of us say, “I’ll be praying for you” and then forget, so just pray for them right there. It might feel awkward, but most times people DO want prayer and don’t know how to ask. Some people feel selfish, often thinking, “Oh don’t pray for little old me, there’s bigger stuff out there.” Take the initiative. Show them you care, now. You will also be secretly teaching them how to pray.
2) Firmly speak truth that looks forward.
At some point, the truth has to be said. We cannot stay in Pamper/Coddle/Spoil mode forever. Let them know: even if they don’t feel like it, they cannot stay crippled by their feelings forever. They also are NOT allowed to use you as a whining board for self-pity.
You know how when someone gets a cold, they act a bit sick even when they’ve recovered? I don’t mean to say that anxiety/depression is the same way, but there has to be movement forward regardless of feelings. When someone ends up quitting school, their job, their family, their church, or any number of commitments, that’s allowing the problem to win. When someone can keep going despite their feelings, then they have won another day. Help them towards that victory.
Sooner or later, they must move into a new season of their life, because life goes on. Anxiety/depression might be a lifelong struggle, but that’s more reason to move forward and not less.
This can be tricky, because we want to be sensitive yet at the same time call out childish behavior. Don’t enable them to go backwards into pity-party reflexes. This will require a lot of discernment, but please don’t feel like you’re being mean if you eventually have to pick them up roughly.
3) Dig it out: heart surgery.
While clinical depression and diagnosed anxiety are formidable unreasonable beasts (see the next point), there are almost always tangible reasons why someone is so depressed or anxious. Let them know first: it is NOT a sin and it is NOT wrong to feel this way. But there is some elephant (or circus of elephants) that needs to be confronted, or else they will be paralyzed.
Just listen. Sometimes when things are said out loud, that’s already halfway to a solution. It could be family stuff, a stressful lifestyle, a secret sin, a past trauma. It could be a lie they believe. Let them let it out.
Once you want to tell your friend to confront something, suggest the options. When I lay out options for people (instead of direct commands), they always figure out the best one themselves. Since they figured it out, they are more willing to do it AND believe in what they’re doing.
4) You can always refer them.
Please never assume you’re the only one who can help them. Sometimes we are in way over our heads. If it gets very, very bad, you can always suggest medical/professional help. Let them know there’s nothing wrong with seeing a counselor. They can go to your pastor, an elder, a deacon, an older Christian brother or sister. I have my own counselor, and really: the world would be a way better place if we all got regular counseling. Nothing wrong with it AT ALL.
Please do this with sensitivity, too. It might look like you’re “passing them off,” but remain available. I wouldn’t suggest this as a first resort, but I know when I’ve met my limitations as a friend. I myself have been referred to other counselors as well.
If your friend agrees, tell them you can go with them for the first session or so. Maybe it won’t work for them or it won’t be the right counselor the first time: that’s okay. This is not a one-time thing. Persistence and patience.