Walking with a Friend through the Valley of Depression

By Gwen Sellers

Many of us have had friends in a state of depression. Many of us have been there ourselves. In either case, we can sometimes feel completely inept. Depression, whether clinically diagnosable or simply a period of feeling down in the dumps, is a difficult state to deal with. There are so many questions about what is or isn't the right thing to do with someone who is hurting.

If someone you love is experiencing depression, she may feel that life is pointless, that she has no capacity to handle what used to be the daily things of life, that no one understands or cares, that all is dark. She may imagine that she is in a swamp of quicksand, unable to move. Nothing is pleasurable anymore. Ultimately, she may believe that life is a lot of work that may not be worth it.

To you, she may seem moody and down all the time. She may not be the fun companion she once was. She may seem indecisive and lethargic. She might take offense easily. She might complain about life or seem unable to comprehend anything positive. She might be withdrawn and uninterested.

Being with people who are depressed is not the most appealing experience. So what are we supposed to do when a friend shows signs of depression? Should we abandon the friendship until she's better? Leave her alone since that's what she wants anyway? Or should we try to get her out and invite her to do things? Should we be happy all the time? Should we be happy around her at all? Should we just listen and never share what's going on in our lives for fear that it might upset her more? How can we avoid falling into depression ourselves while still walking with her through this valley?

All good questions. I wish I knew the answers.

The truth is there are no hard-and-fast rules for how to behave around a person struggling with depression. But, from having lived through mild depression myself, hearing others' experiences, learning about counseling, and looking at what the Bible has to say, I can offer a few suggestions that might be helpful. Please note that because I am female and most of my experience with depression has been with other females, these tips will be coming from that perspective.

Keep the friendship strong. It may not seem like much, but just being there can remind a person that she is worth something, that her life is at least valuable to you.

Encourage her, but don't try to solve all her problems. After establishing a trust relationship, trained counselors are allowed to challenge clients and say things that could potentially be hurtful. They can help clients learn to solve their own problems. People go to counselors expecting this type of treatment. Your job as a friend is to love—not to be a counselor. Friends are allowed to challenge and make suggestions too, but it works best when both friends are in a healthy state and such interaction has been invited. This is not the case when one is experiencing depression.

A depressive state can sometimes cause hyper-sensitivity. Sufferers already feel weak or guilty for having depression. Hearing your suggestions to just go for daily walks, or get in the sun, or eat better, or start a thankfulness journal, will likely add to feelings of worthlessness and self-judgment. Though these are great ideas that do help with depression, they can come across as shallow. The friend who thinks the troubles of depression will be solved by a 15-minute walk is not really hearing the heart and the pain. A counselor who mentions using this for symptom reduction while also addressing the deeper issues, on the other hand, has a better chance of positive reception. Be willing to listen. The story of Job is used to discuss a variety of topics in the Christian life. One is depression. Job's friends did well for the first seven days. They entered into Job's despair. Then they started trying to figure out why Job's life had become so difficult, and made many less-than-helpful suggestions. We probably tend to be a little hard on Job's friends. Finding explanations and fixing problems are our natural instincts. But listening is really a gift.

When Jesus interacted with people, He spoke truth in love, but He also listened. James has a lot to say about controlling the tongue. He says to be "quick to hear, slow to speak" (James 1:19). Proverbs 18:13 says, "If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame." The verse immediately after (Proverbs 18:14) is: "A man's spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?" Sometimes our words can crush another's spirit, especially if we have not first accurately listened.

So listen to your friend, even if she is not making sense or telling you what seems to be the same complaint over and over. Hear her. Take time to understand her. Let her know that you recognize and acknowledge what she is going through. Sometimes that's really all we need, isn't it? Just for someone to hear us and say, "Yes, it hurts."

Talk about your life too. It's okay to tell your friend about what is going on in your life. It's even okay to tell her about happy things. Depression can feel like an immovable cloud. To the depressed person, it can seem that they are alone under this cloud, and if they could just solve the problem and get out the funk, they could be "normal" like everyone else.

If you withhold yourself and your life, you leave your friend under the cloud by herself. But when you share about your life, it communicates that you still value the person enough to include her. You still want her to know you. Sometimes your happiness may even make her smile. Proverbs 17:22 says, "A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones." Your joyful heart may not always be received as good medicine, but it could help her crushed spirit.

Now, I want to put forth a caution with this tip. Please be aware that it is unlikely you will be able to have deep relationship with your friend while she is depressed. She's trying to survive and doesn't have much to give back to you. So your sharing may need to be somewhat abbreviated, and you may not get the feedback you normally would from this friend. Test it out. Depending on the day and the topic, some things may go over better than others. Be open to share but with the intention of extending love and care to your friend, not for personal benefit. If she is unreceptive, be willing to simply listen.

Keep inviting your friend to things. Don't pester her or try to coerce her into doing things, but don't exclude her simply because she isn't fun to be around. She might say no often. And you might need to do some social things without inviting her. But she is still your friend and a semblance of social normalcy can be helpful.

Encourage your friend in small ways. Send her a text. Write her a quick email letting her know you're thinking of her. Mail her a note telling her she is valuable to you. Leave her small gifts—a piece of chocolate, flowers, a funny comic strip, a packet of hot chocolate or flavored coffee, a tube of scented lotion. Ask if you can help her with errands while you're running your own. Give her a hug or a pat on the shoulder. These are reminders of her worth to you (and to God). They are glimpses of what makes life worth living. They are reasons to keep battling the darkness.

Be quick to forgive. All of us say things we don't mean at times and treat others poorly. People experiencing depression may be so overwhelmed by their emotional state that they lose some of their prior social graces. They might burst out in unwarranted anger at something you said. They might stand you up. It can be difficult to take. But recognize that these behaviors are probably not out of true malice. They are from a hurt heart that doesn't know how to interact with the world.

Pray for your friend and for yourself. You might feel frustrated with her, burdened for her, angry at her, saddened by her pain. These are all things that God wants to bear with you (1 Peter 5:7). He loves your friend more deeply than you ever can. He wants to hear your heart for her. He also wants to guide you in how you can best love her through this time.

Be cognizant of emotional contagion. Sometimes when we are around depressed people we become so understanding of their emotions that we begin to experience them ourselves. Your friend needs someone willing to sit in the pain with her, but she doesn't need you to stay stuck there. Make sure that you have life-giving friendships and a good support group. Share your burdens with God and with others (while keeping your friend's privacy). Do things you enjoy. Take care of yourself. Remember that your friend's experience is not your own. You might find yourself questioning God and His goodness. Engage with that. Search the Scripture on suffering. Ask mentors for their thoughts. Stay in tune with the Holy Spirit and seek His strength.

In the end, the best way to be a friend to someone who is depressed is to love them. First Corinthians 13:4-7 says, "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things."

What do you think? Are these tips helpful? Have you or someone you loved experienced depression? What did you or your friends do that helped (or didn't help)?

Published 6-10-13