How to Care For a Depressed Loved One

He didn’t notice at first when she came down for the day dressed in black. His mind was distracted by a cloud of misery. He wasn’t inclined to noticing such things these days. Fear reached its talons into his mind, twisting his thoughts. He walked through his days in a haze of vague sadness, distant and disengaged. There was no way out. 

She had tried to pull him from it, tugging him back from depression’s undertow with comfort and logic. She’d reminded him of truth, of his calling, of the great need of his gifts, but to no avail. None of the normal strategies were working. Still he sat in gloom. 

So, she put on her mourning clothes. He finally noticed them. “Are you going to a funeral?” he asked. 

“No,” she replied, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in your mourning.” 

The shock of it sliced through the thickness in his mind. It was a brief burst of light. It was just enough to jolt him back to the present. Just enough to help him start to recover.

While I would not universally recommend this approach taken by Katie Luther in her attempts to pull her husband, the famous reformer Martin Luther, from depression, it appears in this instance her direct and creative tactic helped him. I wonder if it was a last-ditch effort on her part, one final creative strategy to draw him back to the land of the living. I wonder all the other things she had tried. 

When someone we love is depressed, we’re often left wondering what to do. We see them suffering. We see the way depression clouds their vision, saps their energy, poisons their delight. We see someone we love moving as a shadow, as a shell, drained of life and pleasure. It’s a torturous thing to watch. 

It can also be a frustrating thing to watch. Depression does not abide by reason. It bends reality and twists truth into lie. As heartbreaking as it is to watch someone you love suffer, there may be moments when the distortions of depression make you want to give them a good shake by the shoulders. But depression is not something we can merely “snap out of.” It requires a journey of healing, as with all ailments that afflict us. 

I’ve spent time over the last several years researching depressed brothers and sisters throughout church history, but along the way I’ve met some of the people who cared for them. Their spouses, friends and caregivers wrestled just as we do today with how to help them. I’m sure they wept and screamed and questioned and prayed, as we do. I’m sure they lived between hope and despair of recovery. They bore the brunt of sharp tongues and disinterest and daily fought the battle for grace and strength. They also faced the challenge of discerning how to help the one they loved in the dark.

These friends from history do not offer us a a foolproof handbook in caring for our depressed loved ones—each situation requires care, thought, and discernment—but they can serve as helpful and understanding guides along the way. I find three key pieces of advice in their stories that we can apply today when depression affects those we love.

1. Help them get treatment. 

Even in centuries before our modern means of mental health treatment, these friends encouraged and enabled their loved ones to seek the best medical care at the time. You are not meant to be your loved one’s doctor or therapist. One of the best ways to help them is to encourage them to seek professional treatment. The process of getting treatment may be overwhelming to them. You may be able to support them in this by helping to find a therapist, coordinating appointments or managing the calendar. They may want you to drive with them to their appointment or help keep track of their medications. But in all of these things, you are playing a supportive role to the care recommended by mental health professionals, as your loved one seeks to take ownership of their own wellness.

2. Learn to discern when to comfort, when to push and when to just be present. 

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In the stories of these historical figures, I see different day-to-day approaches with their suffering loved ones. Some of them, like Katie Luther, were direct and confrontational at times. Others, like Charles Spurgeon’s wife, Susanna, quietly walked and prayed with them until the light slowly dawned. Others, like John and Mary Newton as they cared for their friend William Cowper, offered practical support in the form of medical care, suicide watch and opportunities for physical employment like gardening. 

Each day and each stage in the healing process is a call to discernment. What will best help our depressed friend or family member will shift based on where they are in the process to wellness, their personality and the nature of your relationship. Be prayerful, humble and thoughtful in your approach. Sometimes they made need a firm push to do the next right thing. Other times they may need you to just sit in silence. Ask them what will be helpful and how you can best support them. Pay attention. And don’t hesitate to ask for forgiveness if you take the wrong approach. Overall, let your actions and words be guided by love and a genuine attempt to understand how they’re feeling.

3. Don’t do it alone.

Caring for someone with a mental illness is difficult. John Newton once said of his friend, William Cowper, “his deliverance would be to me one of the greatest blessings my thoughts can conceive.” This was true because of Newton’s desire to see Cowper find relief. But it was also true because caring for Cowper was a difficult task. He said elsewhere that it was a burden he and his wife bore gladly—they cared deeply for him. But it was difficult nonetheless. So, they worked together. They collaborated with other people who cared for Cowper, so they could work as a team of friends and medical professionals. They knew they should not and could not provide him the best care by working alone. 

You too should not bear the burden of caring for a depressed loved one alone, and you should not feel guilty for needing to find a support system and ways to care for yourself. Operating within a support network and recognizing your own limitations is not weakness or a lack of love. It is a way to ensure you can love well. Burning out or threatening your own health will not position you to support your loved one well in the longterm. Find trusted and trustworthy people who can support you physically, spiritually and emotionally. Don’t do it alone.

Caring for a loved one with mental illness is a marathon. But you, dear one, are not alone in this journey. There are those throughout history who have walked a similar road, and there are those around you today who are on it as well. Above all, God is with you—the God who cares for the brokenhearted, the Savior who weeps, the Spirit who comforts. You are not alone.

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