In light of Robin Williams' passing, I'm re-releasing this blog post on depression.
When I was a senior in college, I struggled with depression.
It started as a deep gray feeling, then widened and darkened into a black abyss. I lived with five of my college friends, but felt all alone. It got so bad I dropped out of school and entered treatment.
The doctors said I had suffered from low grade depression for years. I don’t know if this was true, but it’s what they said. Apparently I had a knack for coping. But this current season of depression, this slick and slippery downward spiral that threatened my entire world, was beyond coping. I wanted to kill myself.
I’m better now. It’s 14 years later. In the course of my depression, lots of people tried to help. I know their heart was right. But sometimes, their words were not.
Following are seven things that Christians shouldn’t say to someone who’s depressed. (No blame here—I said some of these things to others myself.)
1. Just pray more.
Oh, my lack of praying was the cause of my depression. And my prayerlessness was the reason I couldn’t find my way out. When I was depressed, I couldn’t hold a firm thought. And I had serious doubts about my relationship with God. I didn’t know what he thought of me. Part of me didn’t care. I tried to pray, but it didn’t seem to do any good.
Better: I’m praying for you.
2. If you have abundant life, you don’t have a reason to be depressed.
Some people think that if you’re saved, and therefore have abundant life, then you have no excuse to be depressed. If your soul is right with God, that’s all you need. But depression is an illness. And while you live on this earth, you’ll deal with illnesses. If your friend comes down with the mumps, you don’t say, “You can’t have mumps—you’re a Christian!”
Better: I know God wants to walk this with you, that’s abundant life.
3. It’s not a good witness if you’re depressed.
Christians are supposed to be joyful and victorious, right? What does it say about Christianity if its followers are not? Doesn’t that make for a bad witness? I don’t think so. I think the world is looking for people who are authentic in their struggles. Facing challenges is common ground. Authenticity holds incredible value. Who wants a plastic, puffed up Christian? I'd rather see one who bleeds.
Better: We can all benefit from seeing a Christian deal with depression in a real way.
4. Just cast the demon out, go on medication, or get counseling—and move on.
We’d all like a quick fix. But I believe that depression can have a variety of concurrent influences--demons, chemical influences, false belief systems and emotional wounds. The depressed person is a whole person—spirit, soul, and body—so treat him or her as such. My recovery centered on all three.
Better: There are probably multiple influences, so consider a holistic recovery plan.
5. You just need to get around more people.
When I was feeling incredibly lonely, the answer was not to get around more people. Like somehow being around more people would snap me out of it. I’d finally find whatever I was missing in this crowded space. But actually, I felt more alone in a crowd. Instead, I needed to not have to explain myself another time. I needed a few people with whom I could feel safe and protected. There’s a difference between isolating from everyone and choosing a few supporters.
Better: You deserve the space you need, but who are your supporters?
6. Can’t you just be joyful and grateful?
Umm, easier said than done, especially when you can’t remember when you last felt this thing called joy and you’re convinced you’ll never feel grateful again. Not when it takes all your energy to lace your shoes for the day and to remember how to drive the way you have driven one hundred times before. Choosing joy and gratefulness is challenging for the most enlightened and most holy that are at their best, how is it for those who are barely clinging to reasons not to drive themselves into the concrete lane divider?
Better: I believe things will get better for you—that’s not joy or gratefulness, that’s hope.
7. Lame Christian clichés like, “Let go and let God,” “God helps those who help themselves,” and “Everything happens for a reason.”
These statements might work well on a greeting card, but not for normal discourse. When a well-intentioned friend sprung one on me, it just made me mad. How could one statement be the answer to the heart-wrenching, soul-turning, life-sapping struggle I was facing? It seemed like the golden advice made them feel better, but made me feel worse. And inside I registered that friend as unsafe.
Better: I don’t have many answers, but I will listen or just sit with you.
If you're supporting someone who's depressed, let me get you off the hook. They're probably not looking for you to solve their problems or make it go away. They're probably just looking for you to love them gently and patiently. So do that and avoid statements that might make you feel good, but will push them away.