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Q & A: My friend is depressed. What can I do?

SOURCE:  Leslie Vernick

Question: My friend has struggled with depression for a few years. She is a wonderful woman of God, but she does not see anything decent in her or of any value. She takes every good thought and turns it completely on its head. One night we will be talking and having a great time, and the next night she will be exhausted on every level and will be at the point of tears and will say nothing. She even tells me that she just wants to die at times.

She says she will not do anything, and she tells me not to worry, but it is hard not to. She seems to expect to crash, and she feels like she will never get out of the ups and downs that she fights against. She is on medication, but she says it only helps her cope with the depression and does not help with the thoughts. She believes it is a combination of both psychological and physiological factors.

She has tried counseling, but she never thought that helped, and she is also reluctant to read books on the topic. She does have good days, but lately they are always followed by a string of very dark days where she just wants to sleep and do nothing. I listen to her, pray with her, read scriptures, talk to her, sit with her, or anything that will help her. She is not mad at God for these feelings, but she sees absolutely no hope in anything when she comes back down from an emotional high.

Many of my pastor friends have recommended your book, Defeating Depression, but as I said before, she’s hard to convince. We’re both college students as well. No one (even pastors) seems to understand the gravity of the situation other than a few close friends and her immediate family. It is really hard to find anyone at all who doesn’t assume that it’s sin, or just feeling down. It goes so much deeper than that.

I’m looking for Biblical advice in anyway and prayer for her. Thank you. I could write a lot more, and I have so many questions, but I do not know where to start. I just want to see that darkness lifted from her.

Answer: Depression, as Ed Welch writes, is a stubborn darkness, and you’re experiencing that with your friend. Women are twice as likely to suffer from major depression as men, and studies say one in five women will experience major depression in her lifetime. Your friend is facing an affliction that is common, but quite debilitating.

You write that she will not “do” anything yet she feels like she will never get out of the ups and downs she “fights against”. Fighting against something oppressive is doing something, even if it doesn’t look like it from the outside. It might take every bit of strength she has at times to get up in the morning, go to classes, talk to people, comb her hair, or sometimes even not to kill herself.

It’s difficult for someone who has never suffered from depression to understand how captured someone feels by it. I commend you for sticking by your friend and being a support to her through reading scripture, prayer, encouraging words, and just your non-judgmental presence and attitude. Sadly, friends often scatter when people are depressed because they don’t know what to do, and it becomes draining to keep trying to help. Make sure you take care of yourself in this process of ministering to her.

Christians sometimes take a rather simplistic approach to understanding depression and say hurtful things like, “depression is sin” or “if only you had more faith you’d feel better.” Scripture shows us plenty of examples of godly people who suffered deep depressions such as David, Jeremiah, Elijah, and the apostle Paul. Other examples from history of those who suffered from depression are Martin Luther and Charles Haddon Spurgeon. Everyone sins and fails to trust God at times, yet depression isn’t always the result. Depression is more complex than these simple answers.

Other people look at depression as purely a biological problem. They say things like they have stinky genetics, bad hormones, or not enough brain chemicals. All that may be true and contributing to your friend’s chronic mood disorder, but even when someone has a physical problem such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, or depression, there are certain things they must do if they want to help their condition to be less debilitating.

For example, she must learn to handle stress, deal with interpersonal distress (which can be very depressing), as well as the basics of eating the right foods, physically exercising to strengthen her body and making sure she sleeps enough.

Depression definitely has some physical component, so if someone can’t eat (or isn’t eating right foods), doesn’t sleep enough, or isn’t in the habit of regular exercise, I start encouraging her to work on those things. Studies show that simple changes in the way one takes care of their body can yield big dividends in overall mood and well being.

The scripture also tells us to “Guard our heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” (Proverbs 4:23). Our heart contains not only our emotions, but also our mind, our desires, and our will. You said that your friend said counseling hasn’t helped her thinking. She must learn to fight against her negative thoughts if she wants to get healthier. For example she tells herself she’s no good, she’s hopeless, and she’ll never get better and can’t be helped.” Those are pretty negative thoughts, and anyone who thinks that way WOULD feel depressed. (My book talks about those things specifically in chapter 5.)

When she is in that state of mind, the question that she must challenge herself with is, are my thoughts true? They feel true, yet the apostle Paul tells us to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:5). All of us have thoughts and feelings that are not based on truth (Jeremiah 17:9, Romans 1:25). Part of our spiritual growth comes from identifying which thoughts are lies and learning to put them off, as Paul counsels us in Ephesians 4. In addition, we must learn to put on or renew our mind with God’s truth (Romans 12:2).

Those practices take time, energy, and effort. When you feel like you don’t have any of your own, it can be friends like you who help “remind” us of what’s true, good and right (Philippians 4:9).

Teach her to switch mental channels when her thoughts are negative and destructive. The bible teaches us that our thoughts affect our emotions (Psalm 55:2). If we meditate on depressing, hopeless, thoughts, we can’t help but feel those matching feelings. Instead of tackling her feelings directly, help her switch channels much the way you would if you were watching a scary movie and didn’t want to feel scared any more. You’d change channels, not just tell yourself to stop feeling scared.

You can help her stop thinking about what’s wrong, hopeless, or terrible with her or her life and instead focus on what she can thank or praise God for right now, however small.

You said she doesn’t want to read anything, but perhaps she’d be willing to listen to an interview on depression that Ed Welch, author of the book Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, and I did on Dennis Rainey’s Family Life Today radio program. To listen, just go to http://www.leslievernick.com/media.php  and select the Family Life Today links under the heading “Listen to Leslie’s media interviews”.

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