This is a guest post by my friend Paul Ritchie, who is the pastor of Limerick Baptist Church. Paul’s new book “Is It Unspiritual To Be Depressed?” has just been released by Christian Focus Publications (you can buy it here, or from other online shops). It is a helpful resource for anyone who struggles with depression or anxiety, and for those who are trying to support friends or loved ones. Paul speaks honestly from his own experience, and wisely from God’s truth. I asked him to share a few thoughts about how to genuinely help those who are struggling with depression. Here are his suggestions:
The support group, AWARE, states that in the Republic of Ireland one in ten people are suffering the symptoms of depression at any given time. The figures are likely to be similar in the United Kingdom. That being the case, you can be sure that there are probably more people in your church who struggle with depression and anxiety than you realise. So, how can you help them?
Start by being there for them
There can be great healing in being held and having someone be there silently. The appropriateness of being present may depend on how well you know the person. They will probably only want to spend time with their closest friends and family. It is important to respect the privacy of the person’s home, and so only visit if invited. Ask them out for coffee or tell them you would be happy to call, but only in a way that leaves them free to say no.
Small gestures help
If you don’t feel close enough to spend time with them, then remember that small gestures help. You can write a card, cook a meal, send a text or offer forms of practical support. During my time of deep depression, I received a wonderfully encouraging card from a friend who knew that I was in pain. It meant so much to me and I have held on to that card.
Encourage them to get help
Sometimes you will have a clearer awareness that you loved one is suffering from a mental health struggle than they do. Talk to them about your concerns. Encourage them to go to see their doctor. Your attitude towards medication will affect their willingness to get this help. You may also be aware of times when it seems like the doctors are just throwing medication at them, and you will need to encourage them to deal with some of the root issues. They may feel nervous about going to a therapist or counsellor, so your support may be needed. I know that when I started to realise that I was struggling with mental illness I looked to my wife to validate my need to go to the doctor. I feared that I was being over-the-top in going to my GP, but actually the help of physicians and a psychiatrist have been invaluable.
They will be much keener to tell you about how they feel than to hear your advice about what they should do. They want to be understood and accepted. Ask them perceptive questions, summarise what you hear them saying and refrain from interrupting. Definitely do not tell them to snap out of it. They would if they could. Be modest with any advice you do give.
Model the kindness of God
Be the sort of person that people feel safe with. That means that you will be the sort of Christian who is happy to be honest about your own areas of brokenness. Not all people struggle with their mental health, but all people struggle. If you are intent on presenting a strong face to people, you will find that people will never take their mask off with you. Remember that we follow a High Priest who is able to sympathise with His people’s weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).
Ed Stetzer claims from his research that, “in many ways, the church, the supposed haven for sufferers, is not a safe place for those who struggle with mental illness.” Thankfully, that has not being my experience. After I had a breakdown, and subsequent depression, I received the kind support of a doctor who called and gave advice, a former psychiatric nurse who sat down with me over coffee wand explained what was happening to me, regular WhatsApp messages from a praying friend and was part of a church that showed tremendous love and kindness.