As someone who has personally struggled with depression and tried to minister to loved ones in the thick of it, I have experienced how difficult it can be to know what to do or what will help. It can be easy to throw up your hands in defeat. But before you do, know that there is hope.
Here are ten things you can do when someone you care about is depressed:
1) Be patient
It’s easy to see the depressed person lying in bed again, or walking around in that familiar dark storm cloud and think “Here we go again!” Although the depressed person may have withdrawn inwardly, what they don’t need is people to give up on them. In these situations, we need to model our Savior, who was steadfast and longsuffering, and follow the instructions of the apostle Paul who said we must walk in patience, bearing with one another in love, and bear each other’s burdens (Galatians 6:2; Ephesians 4:2).
2) Don’t say, “Stop having a pity party” (even if they might need to)
The depressed person may be inward focused and fixating on all the bad things that are happening (“Why me?”), or even despairing that they are depressed, instead of thinking of all the things for which they could be thankful. But now is not the time to tell them that.
Instead of cavalierly quoting the apostle Paul, “Rejoice always! Give thanks in all circumstances!” (1 Thessalonians 5:16,18) or preaching Proverbs at them (“A glad heart makes a cheerful face!” – Proverbs 15:13a), try living with them in a kind and understanding way.
Paul also said to put on compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience (Colossians 3:12). They may need to hear the former things, but, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver” (Proverbs 25:11).
The timing and delivery of the truth is just as crucial as the truth itself.
3) Love them
Building on the last point, Paul says that above everything else, we are to put on love (Colossians 3:14) and, “Let all that you do be done in love” (1 Corinthians 16:14). Whether it is through the physical expression of a hug or holding their hand, doing something nice for them, or simply saying, “I love you”, make sure they know how much you care.
No matter what you say or what you do for them, if it is not done in love, then it is useless (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Our Lord Jesus Christ also said to love your neighbor as yourself (Matthew 22:39). Think about how you would want someone to treat you if you were feeling depressed and treat them the same way (Matthew 7:12) or even better! “Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).
4) Don’t ignore them
The depressed person needs to know that they are not a burden or an annoyance. Treating them like they don’t exist or rejecting them will only make them sink into a deeper depression. It may be difficult to be around them, and you may even feel like they are starting to pull you down with them, but remember, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7).
It may be hard, but commit to believe the best about them. They are not doing this on purpose. Bear with them in love. Double down on your efforts to engage them and endure, even though it may hurt to watch someone you love go through this, and even if their behavior may be difficult to take. Simply being present with them, even if they don’t feel like talking, speaks volumes without saying a word.
5) Listen if they feel like talking
Bouts of lying in bed, sleeping, or sitting almost unresponsively may be more frequent than the depressed person being in the mood to talk. But if you catch them on an upswing and they do feel like opening up, make sure you give them your full attention. Set aside any distractions and put your to-do list on hold. The Lord knows this is more important and may have different plans for your day than your own. “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17).
6) Ask questions
This goes hand in hand with the listening part, although you may not necessarily want to do them at the same time. Sometimes it is more appropriate to just be a good and attentive listener. However, sometimes it may be helpful and timely to offer input. If the depressed person has some moments when they are on more level ground, a “part in the clouds” so to speak, it may be a good time to help them probe a little deeper into why they are depressed.
Ask open-ended questions about what they are feeling or thinking on the inside, what external circumstances they are experiencing. On a more spiritual level, gently ask about sins they may be struggling with that could be causing them to feel guilt. Unconfessed sin can manifest itself as depression and other physical symptoms. Although depression itself is not necessarily a sin, do not overlook how sin can have real mental and physical effects on us (see Psalm 32 and 38).
7) Invite them to do activities they normally enjoy, but don’t push them if they’re not ready
Maybe the person you know who is struggling with depression normally enjoys walks, watching movies, or hanging out with friends. Gently ask if they might be interested in doing one of those pleasurable activities, and gladly offer to do it with them. But don’t get discouraged if they don’t want to (see #1).
8) Encourage them to set up regular meetings with a biblical counselor or pastor
If their depression seems to be persistent and long-lasting, or even short bouts that have a frequent repeat cycle, it would be highly beneficial to start working with someone who could help them dig deeper. Using Scripture, a biblical counselor or pastor could help find the root cause of the depression and then help set up a biblical battle plan. Another benefit is having a consistent time and person to with whom they could voice their struggles.
9) Encourage them with Scripture
Again, “encourage” is the key word. Now is not the time to show them all the places in Scripture where they are “messing up” and heap more burdens on top of them. There is a time and place for dealing with sin (see #6). But as the writer of Proverbs says, “Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Proverbs 16:24).
You can help the health of their soul by sharing verses with them like the following:
“The LORD is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit.” (Psalm 34:18)
“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” (Psalm 46:1)
“Cast all your anxieties on God because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
10) Point them to Christ
Depression turns our focus inward, causing us to fixate on what we perceive to be wrong with us or wrong with our circumstances. Getting the depressed person to look outside themselves is crucial. And there is none better to have them look to than Christ. Christ is our propitiation (substitutionary sacrifice for sin) if there is a sin struggle that is weighing them down.
We turn to Christ in repentance for forgiveness and freedom from guilt. Christ is our comfort. We can relate to him because Jesus was a “man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3), He became like us in every way (except sin), and endured suffering:
“For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too.” (2 Corinthians 1:5)
Christ is our intercessor and mediator with God the Father. And Christ is our hope—the only true light to shine in our darkness, our power to lift us out of the miry pit, and source of abundant life.
The final point is the most important one. It is the only way for your loved one to experience genuine freedom from the chains of depression. If you skip all the other steps, don’t miss this one!