If we don’t have firsthand experience with mental illness, or any disability, it can be difficult to understand what individuals with such conditions may deal with daily. That’s just the way it is. So, how do we work through our questions, concerns, and fears to effectively encourage a loved one with a mental illness? The easy answer is, focus on the person and not the diagnosis. As we’ll see when we look at tip #1 for encouraging a friend with depression, showing unconditional love is key.
Society’s perception is that the ‘mentally ill’ can’t work, don’t have healthy relationships, are to be feared, are not worthy of respect, and are relegated to the margins of society because they are “different.” Yet they usually work tirelessly to regain a sense of self and a sense of peace.Dr. Nancy Kehoe: Wrestling with Our Inner Angels: Faith, Mental Illness and the Journey to Wholeness © 2009
Encouraging a Depressed Friend
The five tips below are based on what family members and friends did for me when I had severe depression. After a quick overview of the five tips, we’ll focus on tip 1. Over the next couple of months, I’ll share more detailed information about the remaining tips. And while this blog series focuses specifically on depression, the suggestions can be applied to a range of health conditions. They will even be useful when someone is suffering from extreme stress not related to a clinical diagnosis. Please share your thoughts and comments! I would love to learn from you, too.
Five Tips for Encouraging a Depressed Friend
- Show unconditional love. Loving others is the most powerful way to show support. In fact, the other tips are ways we can act out that love. It is important, however, to realize that we do not want to enable a person to stay in an unhealthy state. Share concerns gently and honestly, in love.
- Be available. Many times, simply listening can provide the support a depressed person needs. We don’t have to try and solve their problems. Showing we care by spending time with them is a powerful way to pull someone out of isolation. We can encourage them to ease back into activities of life while they continue receiving the help they need.
- Offer occasional help with daily chores. We can jump-start our friend’s effort to be responsible for their personal and household needs by helping them catch up on every-day tasks. Occasional help can motivate an individual to start taking responsibility for things they have let slide in their depression. It is encouraging to know we have friends who care.
- Offer to be an accountability partner. Sometimes we need a little nudge to help us persevere. As an accountability partner, we have an opportunity to encourage someone to carry out activities to improve their health and well-being. Accountability works both ways. Letting our friend encourage us to be healthy can do a lot for their healing by giving them a sense of purpose.
- Pray. I believe that God hears our prayers and wants us to reach out to him in our time of need. He also loves to hear our offerings of praise and thanksgiving when things are going well. When we pray for our friends, God softens our hearts towards them. We can find the energy and wisdom to provide support.
Tip 1 – Show Unconditional Love
I will always be grateful for the affirmation of love from my family and friends during my darkest days. It is no coincidence that showing unconditional love is the first tip.
As much progress as we’ve made to reduce the stigma of mental illness, there still exists a belief that someone with depression should just “get over it.” A person with an anxiety disorder may be told to “stop worrying all the time.” Expressing unconditional love without judgment is essential. What does it mean to love unconditionally? How can we sufficiently define this kind of love? Love is more than a feeling. It is also a mindset and that drives our actions. Let’s look at 10 attributes of love that will not only encourage a friend with emotional issues but anyone who needs to know someone cares. (Note: It is important for our own mental health to set boundaries when offering support to others. Remember to take time for your own mental wellness.)
*Love is . . .
Patient – Being patient demonstrates unconditional love by letting someone know we are not giving up on them. When the symptoms of their disorder cause them to behave in a hurtful way or say things we know they don’t mean, we can resist the urge to abandon them. Patiently allow our friend the time it takes to go through the ups and downs of recovery. Demonstrate that we’ll be with them through it all.
Kind – Treating people—all people—with kindness goes a long way in the healing process. For someone with depression, kindness and compassion makes them feel special. Being kind may even draw them out of isolation so they can experience even more of our caring attitude.
Affirming – It is rewarding to watch someone successfully work through depression. We need to acknowledge their hard work and encourage them to keep moving forward. When we affirm their good choices, we motivate them to keep going. When we let them know we are inspired by their progress, we give them a more hopeful outlook.
Humble – When we are in a relationship with someone who struggles to overcome their depression, it can be tempting to think of ourselves as stronger and more stable overall. And maybe we are at that moment. However, it’s important to remember that mental illness does not discriminate. Anyone is susceptible and your friend did not choose this condition. When we respond to the nudging to support someone with depression, we need to keep this in mind. An attitude of humility will strengthen the bond between you.
Selfless – Putting others ahead of ourselves is a great way to demonstrate our love. In fact, if everyone took this approach, the world would be a much better place and more at peace. When someone needs us, we want to be there for them, even if it is inconvenient. We’ll talk more about that in a future blog post.
Respectful – Respecting others is an important aspect of unconditional love. We do not love someone only when they agree with us or are on their best behavior. Respect means we accept another person’s right to have their opinion and make choices. The same goes for showing respect to an individual with depression. We need to respect their right and responsibility to get the help they need. It is their choice whether to accept our support. And, they need to know we’ll be around when they’re ready. But, being respectful does not mean watching helplessly as they struggle. That’s where the next attribute, being honest, comes in.
Honest – It is painful to watch our friends and loved ones struggle with depression. We don’t know what to say or do. We feel helpless. I believe it is important to be honest about our feelings and concerns in a loving way. As a real-life example, my husband and children were in pain when I spiraled down and spent most of my time alone in my room. But they did not get angry or judgmental. They did not abandon me. They expressed the need to see me take steps towards being healthy. The desire to relieve my family’s distress motivated me to get well. When I was ready.
But, when expressing how you feel, please be cautious! Being honest does not mean implying they have done something wrong or are to blame for their condition. We don’t want our words to cause shame or push our loved one away. It is essential to remind them that we are there for them. We love them and are hurting with them. Encourage them, lovingly and sincerely, to recognize the blessing of friends and family.
Forgiving – When I went through the darkest days of depression, I lashed out at my husband for the silliest things. I believed he didn’t care about me. I felt judged for being sick. My husband simply didn’t know how to help. In those moments, I didn’t recognize his attempts to be patient and kind. Forgiveness was probably the greatest gift I received from him and other loved ones who were affected by my actions. My hurtful words and behaviors did not stop these wonderful people from encouraging me and walking with me.
Faithful – Depression can cause an individual to believe they are worthless. They are alone. No one cares. When friends and loved ones shy away from them, they read it as rejection. Being faithful means to stay the course regardless of how difficult it can be. Faithfulness goes a step deeper than patience because it represents an overall consistency in how we stand by our friend. Faithfulness is part of our character. People need to know they can count on us. They can trust us.
The Blessing of Love
When we show unconditional love to a hurting person, we can encourage their recovery. They begin to realize they have people in their lives who care. They are not alone. Loving and supportive friends will walk beside them.
*The attributes of love described in this post are based on a beautiful passage in the Bible. God desires us to love others in this way. And, this is how God loves each of us.
Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous or conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered or selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope, and patience never fail.1 Corinthians 13:4-7, The Holy Bible, The Good News Translation. New York: American Bible Society, 1992.)