Each Sunday as I look out over my congregation from the pulpit, I’m aware that a fair few of the members are struggling with their mental health. At times I get invited into their lives and have an opportunity to give encouragement. Over the years, from my experiences and from reading, I’ve learned there are some things that aren’t helpful to say to someone struggling with things like clinical depression.
I don’t think I’ve ever told someone to “just get over it.” I shame-facedly apologize if I ever have, because that’s just about the most insensitive thing anyone can say in these circumstances. It makes it sound like mental health is just a matter of will power. If you only wanted to feel better, then you would. However, no one depressed wants to stay depressed. If it were just a matter of the will, they’d be better just like that.
There’s a place for spiritual guidance, but it can be done badly. I won’t tell you, “You should read your Bible more.” Depending on the severity of the depression, sometimes reading the Bible in a meaningful way is next to impossible. The same thing goes for prayer. Depressed people often can and do pray, but their prayers feel muddled and incoherent. Or it can be so bad that prayer is just too much. Either way, you don’t need me to make you feel worse about your prayer life.
I also won’t suggest you need more faith. A meagre quantity of faith doesn’t cause depression, nor does increasing faith alleviate depression. Moreover, this assumes that faith is something we can just manufacture within ourselves – if we’d only try.
If you’re dealing with depression and I’m asked to help, I won’t say, “Do you think there’s some particular sin that you’ve committed that has caused this for you?” Such a question assumes a direct link between depression and sin. As in: you commit this sin and then depression is what God gives you – tit-for-tat. While the Bible does teach that God can chastise us with illness, it’s not my place to suggest that this is what’s happening. Instead, I ought to be charitable and think the best of you.
Finally, I won’t offer you what’s been termed Dutch comfort. That’s where someone says, “Oh, you think you have it bad? Just look at so-and-so who has terminal cancer. You actually have it really good, so snap out of it.” Sure, there’ll almost always be someone else suffering worse than you, but that doesn’t take seriously the real pain you’re feeling. Moreover, the person who minimizes depression by insinuating that terminal cancer is far worse doesn’t understand how depression can often include suicidal thoughts. Depression can be just as life-threatening as cancer.
People experience depression in different ways. How I’ve experienced it as a man is quite different to the way many women have. Men often experience it in terms of anger and irritability; women with classic symptoms like crying, sleep disturbance, change of appetite, and substance abuse. Regardless of how we experience it, we all need to be reassured that there’s always Someone who understands. Our Lord Jesus has carried all our sorrows. He will hold us fast even if we’re not mentally able to hold on to him. This is an objective reality that holds true despite how we may feel. Moreover, we need to hear about the ministry of the Holy Spirit on our behalf. He perfects our messed-up prayers and intercedes for us. Even our weakest prayer is made flawless by the Spirit. Lastly, there may be instances where we also need someone to encourage us to see a doctor (if we haven’t already done so). Clinical depression is a mental illness and medication can really help, as can prayer for the effectiveness of that medication.