down to the river. [how to speak to someone struggling with depression]
I believe in the power of words — to release truth, to stir hope in tired hearts, and to transform perspectives. Lately, however, I’ve been even more stirred by the sobering converse — the lethal power of our silence.
Silence, when wielded as a form of denial, can be crueler than the harshest criticism. It confirms our shame, drives us further from the surface and deeper into the throes of what we fear and loathe. It is a sick state of affairs that, often, what we most need to address is what we most desperately smother in silence.
And we collude together, it seems, in some unspoken, collective pact of denial. Our conventions of avoiding the uncomfortable, complicated, or controversial reduce our conversations to shallow and safe waters. We flow in familiar, sterile channels, as we forgo the healing relief found only in the deep.
And few topics are so enwrapped in silence than that of “mental health.” Desperate to appear constantly and completely competent, we hide behind brittle veneers and fashion smiles that say, “I’m fine, fine, fine.”
I’ve written elsewhere about my personal experience with depression — this was my choice, a way of tearing at the shroud that fell with such sudden and petrifying totality over my life. I chose to take ownership of my experience by putting it into language, declaring my power over the pain by placing it in the open. This was healing for me, and, I found, meaningful for many others.
Everyone is different, and I certainly don’t imagine that everyone can or should “broadcast” their experience. Yet total isolation is antithetical to health, no matter who you are. And in moments of mental or emotional distress (we all have them, to varying degrees), the need for empathy and support are manifold.
I have been on both ends of depression, now — I’ve been underwater, and I’ve been on the banks of my friends’ own secret floods. I know how bewildering and urgent and intimate and lonely it can be, to watch someone you love sinking.
What will follow are a few pieces of insight for those standing on the cold shore. Everyone is different, and I’m no trained professional, but for those who need a place to start — read on.
1) Educate yourself.
Many people throw around words like “bi-polar” “suicidal” and “panic attack” in everyday speech, completely ignorant of actual, medical realities behind them (“my girlfriend is so bi-polar when she’s on her period” “If I fail this time I’ll probably shoot myself”). Such comments make light of the deep, complex pain of those who actually deal with these conditions, and also perpetuate faulty understanding about mental illness. When we have an inaccurate understanding of emotional and mental disorders, we can miss — or misconstrue — important signals from those around us.
2) Break the surface.
If someone you’re close to is displaying alarming behavior, don’t wait for them to “bring it up” to you. Consider some level of intervention. Determine whether your relationship with this person is one with the level of intimacy and trust that would make such a conversation appropriate. If so, garner your courage, and make the loving and difficult choice to bring up your concern.
3) Their feelings are “real.” Even if you don’t “understand.”
It may be hard, at times, to see “why” someone might be depressed — we often look for “reasons” for a person’s behaviors and feelings. Often, someone suffering from depression is also dealing with confusion or shame over their symptoms, perhaps feeling they have “no right” to feel this way — but the reality of their suffering is still just as potent. Encourage your loved one to express their experience in their own words — to the extent that they can. Let this person know that you “believe them,” listening intently without attempting to blame or explain. Keep in mind you will never “logic” someone out of depression, but creating a space of acceptance is one of the most precious things you can offer.
4) Urge them to take steps.
Depression is a complex, encompassing illness, and although it can be episodic, it should not be dismissed as a “phase.” It is important to realize that your loved one is not operating at her/his fullest capacity while in the grips of depression, and so she/he will require at least temporary reinforcements. This can take the form of psychotherapy (aka, “counseling”), medical intervention, lifestyle changes, relational support, or — most likely — some combination of the above. A single conversation, however grueling or cathartic, won’t “fix” your loved one’s condition. It is important to talk through plans for a tangible, long-term strategy to cultivate wellness.
Continue to ask genuine, sensitive questions. Help your loved one explore what she’s experiencing, without pressuring her to have “answers.” Check in with her periodically, asking gently but earnestly, “how are you doing?” and “what do you need?”
Be patient; be persistent. And listen.