I asked Dr. Janus and Sr. Kathryn to weigh in with their advice, too:
Supporting a Loved One Who is Depressed: Expert Advice
1. Encourage them to seek help—and stick with their treatment. In some 80% of cases, people suffering from depression will find full remission of symptoms in the space of one year—if treated with a combination of biological and
psychological therapies, Dr. Janus says. “You would not try to treat your own heart disease by yourself, don’t try to treat your depression by yourself either. Lovers and spouses who are supportive of treatment are really very helpful.”
2. Do your homework. “If you are dating someone who is sufficiently depressed for the relationship to be impaired and for you to be asking questions, I would think it might be wise to do your homework: find someone to help you sort out what is happening in you in this relationship. How are you being triggered and how are you reacting?” says Sr. Kathryn. “It would be wise to discreetly try to understand if this bout with depression is a one-time, first-time situational response in your friend or does this person and/or their family have a history of depression? If so, what is that history like? You would need someone who can help you sort out your interactions with this person in order to see if you are going to be compatible over the long term in the light of that history.”
3. Pray for them—and with them—in whatever way seems to work. Depression can make it very difficult to pray. “Typically people who are depressed get even more depressed when they try to pray and cannot,” Dr. Janus says. As the loved one supporting someone with depression, pray for them—and tell them that they are in your thoughts. “Prayer is lifting your heart and mind to God, and if your heart and mind are laden with sadness and anger and distraction, well that is what you have to give to God at that moment,” says Dr. Janus. Talk to your loved one about this and let them know that God isn’t judging.
Having lived with depression, and now temporal lobe epilepsy (an organic bi-polar disorder), depression in my experience is not overcome. It is something a person struggles with the rest of their life. Sometimes it is on the horizon, other times it is neatly tucked away somewhere and blessedly absent. Prayer isn’t a magic pill that will make it go away. Besides, if we make depression out to be the big bad bully on the block our whole attention is to figure out how to escape it or, if we get in a fight, conquer it. Bad image. We could consider depression as a friend.
In my experience, depression is not overcome. It is something a person struggles with the rest of their life. Sometimes it is on the horizon, other times it is neatly tucked away somewhere and blessedly absent. Prayer isn’t a magic pill that will make it go away. Besides, if we make depression out to be the big bad bully on the block our whole attention is to figure out how to escape it or, if we get in a fight, conquer it. Bad image. We could consider depression as a friend.
Living with depression can become a vocation: Those who suffer with depression, or manic depression, are the people who experience the highs and lows of human experience. They often are the artists, poets, musicians, writers. Finding God in the ecstasy and agony in life is more of what we should be thinking about. Because God is there. Beside us. In us. With us. Holding us.
Depression can feel like hell. God often feels absent, or they feel as if God doesn’t care. When we are depressed we often are running from ourselves. The more we run, the more we abandon ourselves. The more we leave ourselves behind, the farther we go from God who lives within us, in the center of the soul, closer to us than we are to ourselves. That is why if we are able, meditation, centering prayer, simply being mindful of our breath, or attentiveness to the present moment are extremely helpful.
If we can drop the “story” we are dwelling on and come into the present we will be able to be more interior focused and will find God. Medication, therapy, life-style changes, relationships then all become parts of a larger mosaic of a new life—a life with surprises, depth, and unexpected meaning.
Indeed, that prayer can come in many forms: 81% of BustedHalo respondents said Catholics should be open to meditation and practices from Buddhism and other religions in coping with depression as well.
Sr. Kathryn recommends short, practical, meaningful rituals, such as blessing each other with holy water before leaving the house, a short prayer to say in bed each night or a blessing to say when you part from each other’s company. “You might try praying a psalm, or getting a book of brief daily meditations. Tell your spouse suffering with depression that you are praying for them. Find a spiritual director for yourself and your spouse if they are willing. Look for God’s presence and point it out when you notice. Create sacred spaces in your home. Participate in the Eucharist together.”
4. Prayer can help you, too. For the person discerning a long-term commitment to someone suffering with depression, Sr. Kathryn recommends the “type of prayer that opens one’s heart to our humanity and God’s whispers of love. He has a dream for you. If that dream includes the other suffering with depression then He will unfold that dream in ways that will make the relationship life giving for you both. A good spiritual director will help you understand when it is God’s voice that you are hearing.” For couples discerning the decision of marriage, St. Kathryn advises that time away from that question for both of you to address your own issues and ask for God’s guidance might allow for more clarity.
5. Recognize that you both affect each other. “If your normally outgoing spouse is suffering with depression and suddenly doesn’t want a social life and is no longer the life of the party, you may find yourself on edge,” says Sr. Kathryn. “When you look a little deeper you may discover that your spouse’s social skills were a safe place to hide your own social insecurity. Without understanding the dynamics at play you could lash out at your spouse because you are afraid, which would make it more difficult for him or her. An escalating battle of wills could result. Instead, if you are able to acknowledge your insecurity and to respond to it constructively by addressing your feelings of low self-worth, you will be in a better position to love and understand your spouse’s journey. You will give him or her the space they need to deal with their own issues.”
6. Depression isn’t necessarily the enemy. “Friends and family members are encouraged to tear up the labels and to respect what God is doing in their loved one’s life,” says Sr. Kathryn. In her book, Surviving Depression, she includes lists of famous and holy people who suffered with depression (Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, St. Edith Stein, St. Therese of Lisieux), as well as tips on how to pray for a depressed friend and how to keep emotionally healthy themselves.
7. Be a friend, not a savior. It’s often a challenge to be friends with someone who is depressed—whether you are in a platonic or romantic relationship. Set boundaries: “There are certain things that you can do for a depressed family member or friend. There are other things you can’t. You are not their doctor. You are not their savior. You can’t force them to take medication or find a job or laugh,” says Sr. Kathryn. She recommends making a list of what you want to do for your friend and stick to it. Maybe you call them a few times a week, or take them out to coffee, or walk the dogs together. “You have to stay healthy or you will be no good for your friend. Your health and happiness is the sun that will help draw them out of the darkness. Talk to someone else who is surviving depression and has achieved some stability and cheer. Learn from them.”
Keep the Conversation Going
What do you think about this expert advice? What’s your advice to Susan, and others who are depressed or in a relationship with someone who is depressed? Post your comments below.