Working Through Depression As a Team: What to Do and Not to Do with Your Friend’s Mental Health

@cindahh asked a question:

Hi J.S. Park! I hope you and your wife doing well! I just wanted to thank you again for your book. It has given me a better understanding of depression. So I read it because my good friend battles it, and as someone who is helping him battle it, what are some of the things your wife helped you with; how does she support you? How does she snap you out of it? How does she help you be hopeful? What techniques does she use? What does she say? Are there any “don’t do’s?” What’s the most helpful? I would like to get a better understanding on how I can be there for my friend. I really appreciate it.

Hey dear friend, thank you for this question. It’s a super difficult one.

I have to say upfront: Even the most loving person in the world cannot fully help someone who wrestles with mental illness. Clinical depression will often do whatever it wants, regardless of medicine or therapy or a strong community (all which I strongly recommend, by the way).

While we’re called to love others as much as we can stand it, we cannot be responsible for someone’s actions. That’s too much weight to carry. We cannot save everyone, including ourselves sometimes.

I’ve come across two opposing views on supporting someone through depression.

One essentially says, “Do everything you can. Have empathy for their trauma and pain. Love despite it all. Love will eventually win. Research ways to help. Intervene. Always be there for them. People who leave are cruel and cowards.”

The other says, “Practice boundaries and self-care. Refer them to an expert. Admit when you can’t handle it. Keep a safe distance. You can’t pour out what you don’t have.”

My wife has embraced both of these, in different seasons, depending on her needs and mine.

No one can be everything for everyone. But no one should instantly run away either (excluding cases of abuse). We need a safe middle ground that covers both people involved.

To love someone through their mental illness requires a specific patience that many people don’t have. It’s not because they’re bad or anything. Some just can’t stick around because they themselves have too much going on. I can’t be mad at that, or them.

At the same time, some sneak out the second it gets too hard. I think that’s unfair. At the very least, we should go a little beyond what’s asked of us, whether that means going with someone to one of their counseling sessions, bringing them food, or watching a movie with them that they pick (even if it’s something you’d never watch). These things sound simple, but an accumulation of these things mean the world.

For me, I lean towards the view that people should stick around and help. I know there are situations they absolutely shouldn’t. But I hear stories all day long (at the hospital and with the homeless) where no one ever stayed. Maybe it was because the person left behind made too many poor choices, or they were abusive, or they were not willing to be helped. I can almost understand why they were left behind. But in so many cases, it seems like friends, family, and spouses walked away too early. In the end, it’s a strong community which we need for life, and it’s one of the points of living.

To answer you specifically about how my wife helps me:

How does she snap you out of it?

I say this as compassionately as possible, knowing I might have misunderstood you, but this is not a thing that has ever happened. I can’t remember a single time my wife has “snapped me out of it.” It would be truly wonderful if this could happen, but unfortunately, there are no magic words or a movie montage that suddenly brings me to a better place. No one ever snaps anyone out of anything, really. They stick around through the pain.

How does she help you be hopeful?

This will look differently for everyone, but for me, my wife gives me space to let me feel how I feel—whether that’s bad, sad, angry, or numbness. The thing is, giving hope is not by an inspirational speech all the time. A hug or a hamburger or a night out won’t always do it either. That only works once in a while. When my wife validates what I’m going through, I gain a deeper kind of hope: it’s a kind of relief that she’s not trying to fix me and that I can safely pass through the valley without a burdening voice telling me I need to “stay strong” and “be positive.” Perhaps ironically, it’s her giving me space to hurt which gives me hope.

What techniques does she use?

I really struggle with this idea. Techniques are so useful and there are good ones, but they can become disingenuous if that’s all they are: just practical maneuvers to elicit a certain response.

For example, there are moments in therapy when I start to suspect the therapist is using mental jujitsu; there are certain phrases and buzzwords that I’ve already caught onto which no longer seem human. At this point, I have read so much (too much) on depression that any technique feels forced and shallow. Rather than technique first, I think the main thing is slowing down to listen and to validate. A lot of times, people have rushed my story to a fix-it-all, or they won’t let me process out loud, or they will finish my thoughts for me. The overall approach matters more than technique.

One technique though: my wife tries to get me out of the house. There’s something good about a change of scenery for me.

Another technique: my wife prays for me before we sleep sometimes. There’s something about talking to God next to someone (and for that someone) which allows a little room to say cheesy but encouraging things in the third person.

What does she say?

Mostly nothing. Sometimes she hears what is happening inside for me. Sometimes she will remind me of good times, my own goodness, the goodness of God. But mostly she says nothing.

Are there any “don’t do’s?”

Oh, man. The biggest thing I’d say is lesson type talk. Advising someone to death. Unless somebody asks, nobody wants the advice. It’s probably good advice, but nobody is trying to conform to someone’s view of their perfect life which happened to work for them. That’s all advice is. “This worked for me, and even though we’re two different people, this will work for you.” Nobody can follow even the best advice when they’re depressed.

What’s the most helpful?

Once in a while, tell a person you love them just because. No reason. Many of us who struggle with depression feel like we’re bothering everyone all the time. They need to they’re loved in the middle of that. That’s a God type of love. “I love you just because.” That’s a really big deal, to be loved that way.

— J.S.

Photo from Unsplash

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