Out of the Depths
By Edna King
Each of us is created in the image of God giving us both a common and unique identity, we're collectively and individually lovable, and we are each worthy of being cared for when we're fragile, but those of us in the grip of depression too often feel alone in our brokenness, isolated, and even burdensome to others. In the pit of depression, even God’s love for us may feel impossible. Shame and unworthiness swirl in ugly loops in our minds producing profound hopelessness. In the spiritual struggle that depression brings, the darkness of despair prevents us from seeing that God has hope and joy for us in this life and in the life to come.
When my daughter had cancer, her little bald head brought sympathy and kindness from total strangers. People understood she was sick and showed compassion for her. Would she have gotten as much sympathy and help if she were a depressed teenager who was acting out with hostility towards others as a way of dealing with her own anxieties? Her life might also be in danger, yet the signs of fragility would be camouflaged by outward behavior which pushes away others. Another teen might be showing completely different symptoms- withdrawal from friends and activities -- creating a cycle of sluggish inertia which seems like laziness but is rooted in something worse. How do we summon the courage to realize that we should ask tough questions like “Do you feel like you want to hurt yourself?” And how do we deal with it if the answer is yes? How do we know when to ask those questions and when to insist the teenager gets up because it’s 2:00 in the afternoon? We cannot always see mental illness like we see a cancer stricken child’s bald head, but it is real and there are signs.
One of those signs can be the emotional turmoil created by the depressed person. Their difficult behaviors can provoke other people's weaknesses to bubble up to the surface. One family member becomes hurt and insecure because all the attention has gone to the teen with “problems”. Another family member gets defensive after feeling hurt and inadequate so she starts making snarky remarks, while maybe a third just avoids being home- all in response to a teen’s difficult behaviors produced by depression.
Some people who struggle with depression mask it very well. They hide depression until they can’t anymore, and then there is an emotional outburst or much more tragically, a suicide and everyone around them grieves and is shocked because they “seemed so happy”. No one realized that the person felt alone in a crowd, isolated behind the many likes on their social media account. This is scary to the rest of us and leaves us with guilt, unanswerable questions, and maybe anger. What could we have done?
How do we help teens and others around us who are facing emotional challenges such as depression? We love the person by praying for them, being present with them, and by helping them seek professional help.
Lift this person up to God in your prayers. Pray with them if they are willing to pray with you. Teach the simple repetitive prayers that will help protect their thoughts when their mind spins out of bounds. Give them a psalter and encourage them to read Psalms. Pray for them and entrust them into the care of God who loves them so much.
Be present with your loved one who is having a tough time. Invite them to do simple things like a walk in nature. Being outside and getting exercise helps positive chemicals flow in our brains. The slow pace of experiencing nature on a walk helps to soothe jagged nerves. Be a quiet loving presence on the walk even when you are tempted to use this time to entrap them into a difficult talk which you know will degrade into a sage lecture from you. Your good advice will barely be heard, but if you can refrain from the lecture, your loving presence may bring comfort. Say less, pray more, and listen to them, but don't allow them to be hostile to you or abusive of you. Softly encourage food, exercise, and sleep. Nudge their thoughts away from the darkness by shining the light of God's love on them through your confidence in the truth of His love for them.
If a person expresses suicidal thoughts, have the courage to help them seek professional help. You might start with their priest, family doctor, and finding a good therapist if there isn’t an immediate crisis. If they are a danger to themselves right then, you should take them to an emergency room or call 911.
My friend Sally saved her friend’s life by doing just that. Sally, who lived in Maine, was on the phone with her depressed friend in Georgia when her friend got unusually groggy, made some bleak comments, and started falling asleep in a way that seemed unnatural. Sally could’ve just gotten off the phone and brushed this aside. Instead, Sally boldly asked some uncomfortable questions and found out the girl had taken an overdose of sleeping pills. Sally hung up and called 911.The police saved her friend's life by breaking down the door (she was unconscious by then) and taking her to the hospital. I got to know both Sally and her friend a few months later and was stunned that such a lovely talented young woman would have wanted to die. Thank God Sally had the courage and love to do something which felt invasive and even a bit dramatic at the time.
Worrying about someone else’s emotional state is so incredibly stressful and brings such feelings of helplessness. Sometimes the “walks in nature” words of advice like I wrote earlier feel bitter and inadequate- like sticking flimsy plastic bandages over a gaping wound. We know that a walk in the woods may help for moment, but that other moment we dread may still be coming like an out of control freight train. The truth is, there are no easy fixes, so we just do the best we can at any given moment.
Sometimes my best at a given moment is to leave the room before I say something else or maybe to not throw that shoe. But then maybe a wake-up call of unruly emotion might help the situation by its unexpected rawness. We can’t know what will help; we can only run to God’s arms and pray for His help. Prayer, being persistently present, listening without lots of unsolicited advice, and getting professional help when danger arises are the best things we can do for our teens or other loved ones who seem to be depressed. We cling to God's promise of hope and the drying of all tears in heaven. We walk through these tough times knowing there is no easy way out but choosing to trust in God's steadfast love.