I recently read a blog post written by a dear friend of mine, a young mother who, after her first child, has not been able to fully shed the burden of depression.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I have “been there, done that.” My own journey with depression began my freshman year in college. I continued to deal with depression during college, my mission, and then especially as a mother. Like physical illnesses such as diabetes, depression has been a condition that has taught me and my husband many lessons over the past 28 years. I hope to share more in the future about what I have learned, but today I wanted to share 4 things that I would recommend for someone who wants to help a friend, family member or spouse who suffers from depression. (These are things that I also do to help myself deal with discouragement or feelings of depression.)
Note: I hesitate to post 4 things. Sometimes just trying to do one thing is enough focus for a day or even for a moment. But here are four, in case someone needs a new idea, and the fourth is the one they needed.
1. Pray. Chronic depression is, I imagine, like any other chronic illness. Sometimes just the fact that it doesn’t go permanently away can be really frustrating at times. To have a wave of depression return after a long period of “remission” can be particularly discouraging. I have felt comforted just hearing the words from my husband’s mouth as we kneel in prayer together at the start of another hard day: “Please bless Liz to have strength and energy and the help that she needs today.” He has prayed for me in countless prayers, day after day after day and prayed specifically in so many ways. We have prayed over the phone together. Each time we pray together, it helps me feel loved and know that he cares. Of course, his prayers are sincere, and I feel that. It is so important to feel that there is someone on earth who really cares and won’t give up on you while you are fighting your inner battle. Being depressed can make God seem really far away, so having someone you can hear or see brings God closer.
2. Be positive. Being positive and having hope for someone even when they do not feel positive or feel hopeful can be like holding out a candle in a dark room to guide someone to the door. Being positive is a part of cognitive therapy, or learning to think in healthy ways, and it takes lots of practice. It’s not a one-time exercise. It’s just like physical exercise: you have to practice repeatedly to be benefitted. Having a mental exercise partner is super helpful.
For me, cognitive therapy it is something I have to constantly work on. Cognitive therapy can be as or more effective than medication. (NOTE: Anyone who is taking medication for any form of mental illness–such as an antidepressant–should never stop medication without consulting a doctor. You cannot just stop taking an antidepressant to begin cognitive therapy. Antidepressant medication can be a very helpful aid in helping people to deal with their mental illness. Please follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.) I agree that you cannot just get rid of depression by mentally “flipping a switch” or trying to be more positive, but over time, working on recognizing unhealthy/unrealistic/negative thinking patterns is very helpful. I have learned that I can avoid moving further into depression by exercising mentally. I can avoid becoming depressed when I get sick or discouraged by practicing healthy thinking.
I read a scripture this morning that I hadn’t noticed before. In his war-time letter to his leader and friend Moroni, Helaman writes, “But behold, here is one thing in which we may have great joy” (Alma 56:9). Counting blessings and seeing the one positive thing isn’t just a nice piece of advice. It is cognitive therapy. When I was dealing with my worst time of depression, Lane would gently ask me, after we had knelt in prayer together and before he had to leave for work, “What are you looking forward to today?” This practice has helped me to think about what I can look forward to in a day that begins feeling heavier than I can bear. If I have something–just one thing–to look forward to, I can take a step forward in that direction. If I couldn’t think of anything, he would sometimes help me think of something. He was always patient. I am enormously blessed with a patient husband.
I know not everyone has a husband on hand to help. Finding a friend who can help you and being that friend for someone who is struggling is a real gift.
3. Listen compassionately. It must be tiresome to be a friend/companion/spouse who is helping someone with depression, but your efforts are not in vain. Allowing someone with depression to share their burden can be so therapeutic for them. I remember this quote from my childhood: “A good pair of ears will drain dry an hundred tongues” (Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard’s Almanac). I find that talking out a concern can help me gain perspective on it which allows me to deal with it more effectively. Sharing burdens with a trusted, compassionate friend (who doesn’t try to solve your problems for you, but can give you an honest, balanced perspective if you want one) is much cheaper than paying for a therapist!
4. Support them in exercising physically and working. Physical exercise is one of my best medicines for maintaining good mental health (coupled with sleep, drinking plenty of water, and eating whole foods). After running and showering, I can face even a day in which my mind/body/spirit feels discouraged or depressed. It may be hard, but it is not as hard as it is when I just choose to sit or stay in bed. I think Sundays are challenging because I don’t exercise and I sit so much. But the day of rest is good in the longer view.
When my children were younger, I needed a lot of support to make exercise happen. That included allocating some financial resources to make it possible. That was a sacrifice, but Lane agrees it is worth it. “If mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.” 😊 Now, when I have all of my children in school, I still appreciate encouragement to exercise. I love it when Lane prays, “Please help Liz accomplish her exercise goals.”
Work is also critical in dealing with mental illness. If I can work hard, I feel so much better. I can shirk a hard-start morning with a good run and an opportunity to get to work and accomplish something. When I have sick children at home or children’s needs that take me away from a project that I had wanted to accomplish, I remind myself that my first and most important job is nurturing my family. That is my work. God’s “work and glory is to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man” (Moses 1:39). When I am doing my work, and remember that I am doing just what I was placed in my circumstances to do, then I can access peace. I appreciate it when Lane helps me with my work when he gets home from his job. He does this willingly. I know that it requires unselfishness on his part, and it is a great example to me and helps me try to keep going even when internally, it is an uphill battle.
I believe you can do anything if you have help. That includes dealing with, and perhaps even overcoming, depression.
I want to express deep gratitude to Heavenly Father and Jesus, my husband, children, parents, siblings, extended family, friends, visiting teachers, counselors, and others who have extended the love of God to me by doing these (and other supportive things) to help me on my journey through life–including dealing with depression.