How Laypersons Can Minister to Depressed / Suicidal People
This is a follow up to my previous post,
Some of the advice I give here in regards to depressed or suicidal people can also be applied to other situations, not just depressed or suicidal friends.
Parts of this advice can be applicable to family or friends you have who are in mourning, friends who have a physical illness, or ones who are worried because they just got laid off from their job and don’t know how they’re going to pay their rent, or friends who were divorced a month ago after 15 years of marriage and they are heartbroken.
Regardless of the reason of their sorrow, worry, or fear, a lot of this advice can help them as well.
In his post about the suicide of actor Robin Williams, Christian blogger Matt Walsh focused on what one should SAY to a depressed or suicidal person.
Walsh also seems to think making arguments – based on logic – can pull a depressed person back from going through with suicide.
Cold, hard facts and logic, appeals to reason and rationality aren’t going to make much of an impact in discouraging someone from taking his or her own life. (I explain why in a little more detail in the last post.)
The area of emphasis is wrong.
One should not be stewing or pondering over what to SAY to a depressed, suicidal person (or someone who is in mourning) – for ultimately, there’s not much one can say to someone in that much pain – the key is what one DOES for a depressed or suicidal person.
You need to think in terms of what you can DO for a hurting person, not in terms of what you should SAY.
I used to have clinical depression, and suicidal thoughts off and on (from my pre-teens to my early 40s). I discuss my personal experience more in-depth in the last post.
I have never phoned a suicide hotline in my life, so I’ve no clue what professionally trained counselors would tell a person who phones them saying they are on the brink of taking their life. I will guess they probably encourage the person to hold off on the act and see a psychologist or seek group therapy as fast as possible.
That is, I would assume that they probably realize suicidal persons (or any hurting person) needs face to face human contact.
Just reading words off a blog post might help the person hold on a few more hours, but they really need acts of compassion, possibly therapy from a psychologist (that may take months) and medication, and again, they need a personal interaction, not just to passively read words on a blog.
I’m guessing this might be the case, for one page from AFSP reads,
- “Study participants [who were suicidal] either received the hospital’s usual treatment, or usual treatment plus one hour of emergency room education and follow-up contacts either by telephone or in person during the weeks and months after their suicide attempt.
“The study showed a marked decrease in suicide rates among those who received the intervention compared with those who did not.”
“This study also highlights the need for continued, frequent, and personal contact following a suicide attempt.”
If you are a layperson and your friend or family member is depressed, you obviously want to encourage them to seek medical treatment.
Bear in mind that depressed people seldom have the energy or interest to get out of bed and shower and into “street clothes,” let alone get in a car and drive themselves somewhere.
This means you may want to volunteer to drive them to any psychiatry/ therapy appointments, or to pick up their anti-depressant medications for them.. At least until they get to the point that their depression stabilizes and they are able to drive again, which could be several months.
Notice that these are actions you take on behalf of your sick friend – this is not you having to come up with pithy, witty, clever sayings to say to them to convince them not to kill themselves or to whip them out of depression.
In my scenario here, I am assuming you are friends with the suicidal or depressed person and live in different homes.
One of the first strategies you might want to take is – if he has admitted to being depressed, or you say, “it seems to me as though you are depressed” – ask him how he wants you to support him in this area.
One other thing you may want to ask is, “Do you want or need to talk about your depression or anything related to? Because I am available to listen to you for X number hours on such- and- such a day, on a regular basis, for the next X months.”
One of the kindest things you can do for the hurting person is LISTEN.
Walsh had it backwards in his blog post – you don’t need to talk to a suicidal person, you need to listen.
People who have severe depression can sometimes feel some relief if they can talk to a trusted friend about the negative thoughts and feelings they are experiencing, and the problems that are weighing them down and contributing to the depression.
The depressed/suicidal person may want to, or need to, talk to a friend who will not interrupt them, judge them, criticize them, shame them for having thoughts of suicide or for being depressed, or give unsolicited advice.
If you want to play the role of supportive sounding board to your depressed friend, just listen to the person.
Resist the urge to try to “fix” their depression.
Do not offer antidotes or suggestions (other than regularly encouraging them to seek professional treatment for the depression, but resist the urge to nit-pick over their specific complaints, if, for example, they say “XYZ has me stressed out lately,” don’t try to offer solutions to “XYZ,” just say, “I bet that is very stressful, I am so sorry”).
Do not offer cliches, advice, shame, guilt trips, platitudes, or quote Bible verses at the person,
Do resist the urge to offer theological arguments in favor of life or Bible verses against suicide.
Just keep your mouth shut and let your friend do all, or most of, the talking.
If you absolutely feel the need to say something, make comments such as, “I am sorry.” “That sounds very painful.” “Let me know how I can help you through this.”
AVOID COMMENTS SUCH AS
Only offer empathetic comments, no platitudes, no judgments, or suggestions, such as, “Just turn it all over to God,” “Stop being self absorbed,” “stop looking to money / fame/ job / money to make you happy,” “Read the Bible more,” “have more faith,” “Remember Jesus and the cross,” “think of those less fortunate than yourself,” “orphans in Africans have it worse than you,” “go volunteer in a soup kitchen.”
IT’S WHAT YOU DO NOT WHAT YOU SAY
Instead of searching for biblical, witty things to say to your depressed friend, do things for her.
If she lives in a house alone, ask her if you can come over next Friday after work and mow her lawn for her. Bring her over pre-cooked meals in Tupperware that she can pop into the microwave. Rent some movies to watch with her in her den. Do acts of kindness that show you care. Show you care without using words.
Do fun or nice things that make her life easier or add some fun or distractions.
Now, a few words of caution.
Be aware that depressed people turn into hermits, they lack energy, and have no energy in getting out of bed, taking a shower, getting dressed, and going out to dinner and the movies.
My advice in this area is to meet the friend on her own turf most of the time, but once in awhile force her ass to get out of bed, take a shower, get out of the bunny PJs, and go OUT. Your depressed buddy will fight you tooth and nail on that.
Reassure your friend that she does not need to clean up the house before you come on visits, that you don’t care what her house looks like.
I mention this because depressed folk who are “neat freaks” might let the house get gross and messy while they are depressed for months – they will let the house cleaning duties slack for weeks – and they don’t feel comfortable letting a friend over to see the crud and dirt everywhere.
Many depressed people never, ever want to get out of their jammies and the dark bedroom, but on occasion, you need to pressure them to do this. Do not do it every single visit or every week, but say, once a month or so.
(One reason you don’t want to push your friend too hard too often on going out is that she will begin to resent you forcing her to change, and she will find excuses not to let you come over and visit, so tread lightly on the “force your friend to go out” approach.)
Maybe every two visits in a row, you play it her way – you drive to her home, where she can sit on her sofa and watch TV with her while she is in her dirty jammies.
But every third visit or so, insist she shower, put on some half way clean jeans and T-shirt and drive her to a movie, a play, a diner, art museum – whatever she chooses.
But, be considerate. Let your depressed buddy know a week or two in advance:
“Hey, Sally, two weeks from now, on Sat. July 5th, I am taking you OUT of the house, and you don’t have to clean the house before I visit, I don’t care what your house looks like. You will have to shower, brush your teeth, put on some decent clothes. I am taking you out to the ballet” (or movies, whatever your pal likes).
Your friend will put up a fight, because as I said most depressed folk HATE leaving home. They prefer to cocoon themselves in their homes in a nice, dark bedroom. You need to occasionally pull their butt out of their home and force them to go out.
They will hate you prior to and the drive over, BUT, most of the time, the depressed guy or gal will be GLAD they went. Not always, but sometimes.
When I went through years of depression, I had friends that used to drag my ass out, and I HATED it. At first. But after we were out, I enjoyed the hell out of it. I had forgotten how much FUN it could be to leave the dang house. Such little trips did not cure me of depression, but made my life more tolerable.
Another word of caution.
Do not “over do” the role of caring friend. Care-takers can get exhausted, and depressed people are VERY needy and draining.
I have been on both sides in my life. I have been the depressed person needing a friend to talk to about the internal pain and stresses of life, but I have also repeatedly been a magnet for wounded people who seek me out and talk my ear off for HOURS over the YEARS about THEIR PROBLEMS.
I used to feel guilty or bad shutting those folks down (ie, putting limits on how long I would listen to them cry or complain), but I had to do it because playing the role of compassionate nurse at any time they needed, for however long they wanted, is exhausting and made my depression worse.
This means you must have BOUNDARIES.
Tell your depressed/ suicidal friend you will only let him talk about his depression “X” number hours per week / month.
Figure out what your limit is, and start with that. Maybe you can handle listening to this depressed friend rant and cry two hours a month.
As your role goes on, after several months, you may find two hours is too much – so tell your friend. Let her know you will have to cut down to 30 minutes, or 1 hour, or whatever. The opposite is true – maybe you determine you can go more, so you decide to let her talk about her issues four hours per month.
If you do place limits on your depressed friend, do not feel guilty. He or she may rant, cry, and issue guilt trips, like, “If you really cared about me, you’d let me cry on your shoulder and complain 20 hours a day, four days a week.”
Just be empathetic, tell them you wish you could be there for them more, but that you cannot because YOU will be broken and drained being there for them THAT MUCH.
This is also one other reason your friend needs to regularly see a trained professional – they need to be relying on a shrink or psychologist to help them get past the depression, not on you alone!
You cannot be someone else’s savior. You cannot be his or her “Superman” and “everything.” You can only offer solace and support to a degree, and that includes a depressed person.
If you start doing too much for your friend you will enable him or her.
He or she eventually needs to get off their butt and into a psychiatrist’s office or seek some other avenue of relief that does fully rely on you in whole or in part. To rely on one’s friend exclusively is not fair to the friend, nor is it healthy for you.
Over my lifetime, I have drawn (attracted) wounded people to me because I tend to be very sympathetic (which is actually not a good thing), and a good listener (I don’t interrupt, judge, criticize, or give advice. I do not intentionally seek to draw the wounded to me, they just seem to sense I’m a kind-hearted person who will sit and listen quietly while they share their stories, and I will not reject them or criticize.)
The problem with this is that wounded people seek me out and run me into the ground. They expect me to be their savior and a few expected me to fix their pain, and that is asking too much of me or any one person, and it is extremely draining.
I had to set limits with these people. I told one friend I could no longer take the four hours in a row phone calls where she ranted and spit hatred about how much she hated her life, job, BF, etc.
I told her I was sorry she was in pain, but her negative phone calls were taking a toll ON ME and MY MENTAL HEALTH so I could no longer cooperate. I told her that in future calls, I wanted us to stay positive, and that I would only allow her 15 minute per call to gripe, cry, and scream about her problems.
Once I did that, the amount of complaining was cut down considerably, and her phone calls were ten times easier to endure. She even seemed in a tad brighter spirits by the end each call.
But that was just me and that particular person in that specific situation; you may have different tolerance limits than me, or your friend may not be as draining as that one was for me. So you will have to be flexible in your own limits.
There’s some Bible verse (from James) that says something like, “Don’t just say to the hungry and cold man, “be filled and be warm,” but give the guy a blanket and a sandwich.” In other words, when someone is hurting meet his or her needs – don’t offer theology lessons, or preach at the person, or worry about what to say.
Cater to their needs.
If your friend is depressed, watch some funny movies with her. Take her for walks around the neighborhood. Drive her to the beach. Take her to the shopping mall and look around. Do some of her dirty laundry for her.
Dust her furniture if she’s been neglecting housework. Take her car down to the mechanic’s for an oil change for her. Bring her a casserole. Do the kinds of things or take her to places you know she would enjoy.
Do things for her and with her.
Your focus should be upon being there for a depressed person, a person in mourning – whatever painful situation your friend finds himself or herself in – concentrate on what you can do, not what you can say, because there is not much you can say.
There is little you can say to change the fact that someone’s loved one is dead and buried in a grave, and nothing you can say to make them feel better about that fact. There is nothing you can say to make life seem worth living to someone who is so deep into depression that suicide sounds good to them – maybe the professionals at the suicide hotlines have great comments to make, but I cannot think of anything an “Average Joe” can say that would improve things.
Words don’t mean much to depressed people, but actions speak volumes.
At least for me, when I was depressed, when folks gave me the platitudes or said, “I Love You,” I did not feel it, or believe they were telling the truth.
If, however, a friend actually went through the trouble of dropping by to see me, taking me out to dinner and paying for it, mailed me a little card in the mail saying, “thinking of you,” or stopping by to visit, dropping by and bringing me my favorite flavor ice cream, or phoning me up and let me talk for a couple of hours without judging me, that meant the world to me, and I took it as a real sign that someone really cares about me. It’s not just words, they are backing up their words with actions.
What you can give the hurting person is your attention and time. They don’t need your platitudes, theological arguments, or reasons to go on living. They need to be shown they are loved and cared about, and you do that through your actions, not words.
From The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention:
If you are in crisis, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Or visit their page if you are having thoughts of suicide:
(Link): I Am Struggling
Part 1 of this post: