If there were a definitive “cure” for clinical depression, I would plunder my bank account to get my hands on it. But after more than twenty years of personally wrestling with the demonic duo of depression and anxiety, I know that no such cure exists.
This reality makes it challenging to care for and serve those who, like me, often find themselves blindly stumbling through valleys of darkness. If one of your friends is struggling with depression, you want to fix it for them. To take away the sorrow and dispel the clouds of gloom. To take their hand and lead them back into the land of the living. But I can say from experience that things simply don’t work that way. You can’t tell a person to snap out of depression any more than you can tell someone to snap out of a migraine.
This raises a particularly important and challenging question: How can you effectively care for fellow believers who are suffering from depression? Here are three lessons I have found especially helpful.
1. Pray for Them Constantly
When friends are struggling with depression, we often feel a strong temptation to try to talk them out of it. We think that if we can just put the right words together, we’ll help them see that things aren’t as bad as they seem. We believe we can simply reason the darkness away.
Unfortunately, this rarely works, and usually causes more harm than help. We end up like Job’s counselors, offering platitudes that create despair rather than hope. A better alternative, to paraphrase the musical Hamilton, is to talk less and pray more.
The absolute best thing you can do for anyone struggling with depression is to constantly pray for them. And no, this isn’t my token mention of prayer before moving on to other things. Prayer is powerful — staggeringly so. It is asking the living God, the one who reigns and rules over all things, the one who ordains serotonin levels and synapse functioning, to intervene in your friend’s life.
When you pray, God does glorious, unexpected, miraculous things. He splits seas, overturns kingdoms, slays the Leviathan, heals the sick, encourages the brokenhearted, and ministers to the depressed in ways you never could. When James said, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16), he was not joking or exaggerating. Prayer connects us to God himself, and when God enters the scene, the word impossible loses its meaning.
So, pray for your depressed friends. Plead with the Lord to minister to your friends both spiritually and physically. Ask God to restore both the joy of their salvation and the proper levels of serotonin in their brain. Pray that the Good Shepherd would lead them out of the valley of darkness and into green pastures.
2. Stay Close, but Not Too Close
One of the most difficult, perplexing things about depression is that it makes you feel totally alone, yet the thought of being with people is incredibly overwhelming. When I feel crushed by the weight of darkness, I don’t want to hang out with anyone, yet I also want people to know that I’m struggling and to express care for me. It doesn’t make any sense, but nothing about depression does.
This puts you in a weird place if you’re seeking to care for depressed friends. How can you serve them if they don’t want to spend time with you? Though technology can never be a substitute for flesh-and-blood friendship, it can actually be incredibly helpful in these types of situations. Simply checking in via regular text messages can be really encouraging to the depressed. It lets them know that you haven’t forgotten them, that you’re thinking about and praying for them, and that you’re their friend in good times and bad. You can also send them Scripture and encouragements to remind them that God is with them and will never leave them or forsake them.
I realize that, in some ways, this sounds a bit counterintuitive and possibly even counter-Christian. After all, isn’t the Christian life about being physically present with our brothers and sisters in Christ? Most of the time, yes. But depression is a unique affliction that requires wisdom. When others are in the very darkest depths of depression, trying to force them to get coffee or hang out won’t be particularly helpful. They need to know you care, but they probably don’t have the emotional bandwidth to fellowship together. I think 1 Thessalonians 5:14 speaks to this experience when it says, “We urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all.”
There is no one-size-fits-all ministry. People need different types of ministry depending on what they’re struggling with. The depressed (or, as Paul says, the fainthearted) need gentle, consistent encouragement that doesn’t require much or even any reciprocation on their part. By staying close, but not too close, you’ll be in a good position to continue to serve them as they emerge from the depths.
3. Point Them to a Doctor
Depression is both a spiritual and bodily affliction. We inhabit fallen, broken bodies, in which brain synapses don’t fire correctly and serotonin levels are depleted. We live in a world under the curse of sin, and every part of our bodies, including our brains, has been affected. The fact that Christians struggle with mental illness shouldn’t surprise us.
Doctors are a common grace, and one of the best ways you can serve depressed friends is to recommend they see a doctor. Unless you’re a trained medical professional, don’t try to be a doctor for them. Don’t suggest a particular diet plan or cleanse or supplement that helped you feel so much better. Let someone with training make those recommendations.
Some of you may be thinking, But isn’t depression a spiritual battle? Yes and no. Our afflictions are very often both physical and spiritual in nature. Cancer, for example, will tempt you to fear the future. Does that mean you shouldn’t treat the cancer? Of course not.
When I’m depressed, I’m much more prone to doubt the goodness of God and wallow in the depths of despair. That’s a spiritual battle, and going to a doctor won’t solve that part. But receiving medical care can alleviate some of the worst physical symptoms, which then helps me wage spiritual warfare. Wisdom says you deal with both the physical and spiritual elements of cancer, depression, migraines, and any other sickness. If you want to serve your depressed friends, encourage them to see a doctor.
To be clear, there is no guarantee that a doctor will be able to “solve” the problem. Doctors are fallible, and there are times when the medicines they prescribe do not help much, or even make things worse. This is why, when it comes to helping a depressed friend, prayer comes first and foremost. Pray that God gives the doctor wisdom to properly diagnose and treat the problem.
Honestly, depressed people don’t always make the best friends. There are times when we require a lot more than we can give. When we’re wandering through the wasteland, we’re not a lot of fun to be around. If you’re going to care for your depressed friend, faithfulness is needed more than anything else. Faithfulness to keep praying, keep encouraging, and keep serving even when it seems like things aren’t changing.
As one who has played both roles, let me assure you that your care means far more than you know. Your depressed friends may not be able to express it in the moment, but your faithful friendship is absolutely invaluable. So don’t give up. Hang in there as your friends wallow and flail through the darkness. God can use your faithfulness to sustain their faith.
Stephen Altrogge (@stephenaltrogge) is a husband, dad, and writer. His most recent book is entitled, Untamable God: Encountering the One Who Is Bigger, Better, and More Dangerous Than You Could Possibly Imagine. He also writes regularly at The Blazing Center.
A version of this article previously appeared on desiringGod.org under the headline, “Friends Are for the Darkness: How To Care for the Depressed.”
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