My son Stephen wrote an excellent article yesterday: 3 Powerful Pieces of Encouragement for the Depressed Christian.
You can read it here. I would like to piggyback on that article. This post is not for those who struggle with depression, but for us who have loved ones who do.
I have never struggled with clinical depression like Stephen described. But I know plenty of people who have, including several family members. And sadly, in my ignorance I have not always responded in ways that were helpful. But gradually, hopefully, I have changed.
My first experience with depression was with my brother, who was 4 years younger than I was. He struggled with depression in the 70’s, in his late teens and early 20’s. He was the most talented guitar player I have ever known personally. He practiced and practiced because he wanted to be the next Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton, and I would say he was as good as either of those guys. But as good as he was, he was not happy. He was extremely depressed. Which may have been part of what drove him to take drugs, to get relief I believe now, and of course they brought him no relief, and may have exacerbated his depression.
He was also fixated on his jaw, which no one could understand. He was artistically talented as well as musically gifted, and drew several weird drawings of a jawbone. My parents of course took him to doctors and dentists about it, and at the time they could find nothing wrong with him. I believe now he probably had TMJ, though I don’t know.
In his pain my brother turned to the Lord, and I believe he was truly saved. He followed Jesus wholeheartedly for a year and a half, forsaking drugs, going to prayer meetings, and reading his Bible, probably hoping the Lord would take away his depression and his pain in his jaw. But he never found relief, so he quit going to meetings and conferences and reading his Bible, and fell back into drugs.
I remember having several conversations with him, which I’m sure were not helpful. I had no category for depression. I believe I essentially said to him, “Come on John, buck up man. Look at all you’ve got to be happy about. You are an incredible guitar player. You have a mom and dad and sisters and a brother who love you. Everybody I know likes you. You just have to put these negative thoughts behind you and just keep going.”
I remember the night I got a call from my mother that she and my dad had come home from a prayer meeting and found my brother sitting in a lawn chair unconscious in the garage, with the door down and the car running. He ended his depression and his life at age 22.
A number of years later, sometime in the late 80’s or 90’s, I was married to Kristi, the most cheerful woman I knew, we had several children, and life was going really good. Crazy of course with kids, and I was a young pastor. But overall, things were going well for us. We weren’t facing any major trials in life or anything to get depressed or anxious about.
Then one night Kristi awoke in a panic. It was a severe panic attack. I drove her to the emergency room. Something was happening. Something physical. Heart rate really high, other symptoms too. Can’t remember if they gave her anything, but eventually the panic passed and we went home.
That was the start of things. More panic attacks followed. More trips to the ER. What was going on? I couldn’t understand it. Then the depression came on like a Tsunami. Kristi couldn’t do anything. She just sat there at times, a black expression on her face, her eyes lifeless.
What is going on? I thought. My first thought was that this was some kind of demonic attack. Then I thought maybe I’m the cause of this. Maybe I’m failing as a husband. I’m probably not leading my wife well (had lots of teaching back then about the husband’s responsibility to lead). I thought I would probably be removed as a pastor for being such a poor husband. Maybe I needed to lead Kristi out of this. Encourage her buck up, fight harder, not give in to depressing or anxious thoughts.
Expecially because there was nothing in our lives to be anxious or depressed about. Come on, everything’s going well. We have enough money. We aren’t facing any crises. Why are you having panic attacks? Why are you depressed?
Back then, at least in the teachings we listened to and the churches we were associated with, there was no category for depression.
A friend of mine planted a church that had grown rapidly and was doing really well. But his wife wasn’t doing well. She too, looking back, suffered from depression. I can’t recall the details, but because of his wife, my friend had to step down out of ministry.
Sadly, in the beginning of things, I wasn’t much help to Kristi. I can’t remember now, but I probably tried to give her advice like, you need to believe God’s word, or come on, don’t give in to your feelings, you just have to fight this thing. You know, buck up, grab that shield of faith.
Oh, I tried to be the good husband and pick up the slack. I would do the dishes and the laundry and cook and take care of the kids when Kristi couldn’t do anything. But I didn’t have a good attitude. At times I thought, “She’s just milking this. I shouldn’t have to do the laundry. She’s just being lazy. She’s just giving in to this stuff.” What an idiot I was.
Eventually, we went to see a psychiatrist. We got Kristi taking medication. Eventually, she began feeling better. Over the years medication has helped her a lot. At times, she would need to change medications, at times her symptoms would worsen again. For a season her anxiety got so bad we even took her to 13 ECT treatments – shock therapy.
Eventually I came to see that there is physically caused depression and anxiety. A sickness of the brain. Not caused by personal sin or unbelief. And that often, doctors and medicine can help tremendously.
Once at a pastor’s conference, Kristi shared with another pastor’s wife about her struggles. The woman said, “Well, I would never take medication if I were feeling depressed or anxious.” That was the mentality back then. It was almost shameful that Kristi would go to a doctor instead of trusting the Lord to help her.
So what are some things I have learned to do or not to do when someone you love is depressed or anxious?
First of all, believe them.
Don’t assume. Don’t assume that they are just weak, or just giving in to their feelings or to daily stress or whatever.
Do not assume that they must have sinned. This is the worst thing anyone can do. Yes, if we give in to serious sin again and again it will have consequences. And we will know it if we have sinned. The Holy Spirit will convict us. But if someone says they are battling depression or anxiety don’t push the “sin button.” That’s what Job’s friends did.
Don’t assume, like I did, that they are just giving in to depressing thoughts. Don’t assume that they’re “milking” this so they don’t have to deal with life. Don’t assume anything.
Be there for them.
Listen to them if they are up for talking about what they’re going through. Be there for them. In Stephen’s article he said that people struggling with depression should try to find a faithful friend. Someone who will just be there for them.
Know that you cannot possibly fathom what they are going through.
J.B. Phillips (1906-1982) who is known for his paraphrase of the New Testament, The New Testament in Modern English, suffered from mental illness all his life. He once said,
“I can with difficulty endure the days, but I frankly dread the nights. The second part of almost every night of my life is shot through with such mental pain, fear and horror that I frequently have to wake myself up in order to restore some sort of balance.”
“Mental pain, fear and horror” – my wife and others who have suffered depression and anxiety have told me that unless you have experienced it you can have no idea what it is like. For me depression is feeling down about things. Anxiety is being tempted to worry about what might happen in some meeting. But I have never experienced the mental pain, fear and horror that Kristi has or my son Stephen, and so many others I know.
That’s why now when someone is describing any kind of pain they’ve been through, whether depression or an elbow surgery, I remind myself that if I haven’t been through it, I cannot even begin to fathom what they are going through.
Don’t try to give them advice.
Don’t tell them they need to do something or believe something.
It’s better to just listen. As said earlier, to just be there for them. Have compassion on them. Pray for them. Depending on your relationship, ask them how they are doing from time to time. Yes, you can remind them that Jesus loves them so much and will be faithful to them, but not in any way that puts something on them.
Sometimes Christians feel guilty about seeking medical help or psychiatric counseling for mental pain. Yet if a Christian has diabetes or breaks their arm, they have no problem taking medicine or going to a medical professional for help. God has given us medicine and medical knowledge as a gift. Ultimately whether he heals us supernaturally or uses medicine, he is the one who heals and helps.
Initially, I felt guilty about taking Kristi to a psychiatrist and getting her anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. But they have helped her so much over the years. It has been God who has helped her.
I needed God’s help as much as my wife did.
I needed God to help me to be compassionate and to serve her without grumbling. I needed God to help me to do anything I could to help her. To take her anywhere I needed to. To lay down my life. I needed more help than she did.
I’m so grateful we have such a loving God. His steadfast love never ceases. His mercies are new every morning. And boy, do I need them.