How To Respond To Depression

Posted by Mike Foster Mental illness is a lot more common than you think. 1 in 5 American adults experiences a mental illness at some time in their life. Currently 1 in 10 Americans is on antidepressant medication. 42,000,000 adults live with an anxiety disorder. 20% of kids aged 13-18 live with a mental health condition.

The question is not will I encounter depression; the question is how I respond? How do we love and help people who are struggling with depression and maybe don’t even know it?

This is going to sound really basic but it works. One study took people who suffered from major depression and had them exercise every day for about 20-30 minutes. The intensity didn’t matter, they just had to get moving, preferably outside. After 16 weeks, 65% of the people no longer suffered from major depression. Even people who were not on any medication. This is not some magic wand solution. It’s a strategy you can point people toward. It’s even something you could do with them! Yoga, weight training, even just walking outside on a sunny day can lead to major improvements if done consistently. You can do that right? You don’t have to give advice, you just have to literally walk with your friend. So get your sneakers on and take a stroll around the block.

Emotionally avoid the temptation to try and infuse your positivity into someone who is going through something negative. Here's the deal. Depression is the symptom, not the cause. And as a rescuer we always have to be focused on the roots and not the branches or the fruit. To help, we have to look deeper and challenge the thinking behind the emotions we can’t change. Replace lies with the truth of who they really are.

Lastly we can deal with depression on a spiritual level. Depressed people have fallen into the void. They have what Father Gregory Boyle calls a “lethal absence of hope.” Another word for this is despair. Despair is suffering without meaning. It’s a wound without a why. One truth of life is that suffering exists everywhere. All the great philosophers, psychologist and religious teachers of the world recognize this. Even Jesus said, “Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” We need a way to frame up this fact of life. The answer is found in hope and meaning.

Psalm 42 is a song about person struggling with finding hope. He speaks of heartbreak, of feeling abandoned and out of place declaring that tears are his only food. Let’s just say he is not in a good place. Finally he speaks to his own soul saying, “Why am I discouraged? Why is my heart so sad?” I don’t know how long it took him to figure this out. I suspect a while.  But he gives a prescription for spiritual despair in the next two lines. “I will put my hope in God! I will praise him again— my Savior and my God!”

When our hope moves away from the only One big enough and strong enough to give us meaning and never let us down, the result is always despair. When we place our ultimate hope in non-ultimate things we are ultimately let down. Glennon Doyle Melton puts it this way: “The hole got bigger and bigger till God finally fit in. When you’re all hole. God fits.”

You and I know what it’s like to be all hole. We know what it's like to taste despair and depression and feel like nothing is left to live for. As a rescuer I want to encourage you to never forget those moments and let them lead you as you help others. Let those hopeless days make your heart tender to the pain of others. But don’t forget that depression is a physical, emotional and spiritual thing. And there are no easy fixes.

So don’t serve hype but bring hope. Go for walks with your friends who are feeling down. Hold their hand if needed. Remind them who they are. Listen and love well. And watch the healing of hurting hearts begin.

Mike Foster is the founder of People of the Second Chance and the author of Freeway: A Not So Perfect Guide To Freedom. He lives in San Diego with his family and fluffy dog.

Mike Foster