How Do You Talk To Someone When They Are Dealing With Depression

Beyond Blue reports that 1 in 7 Australians will experience depression in their lifetime and 9 people die in the country of suicide every day. If you have a friend or family member who is living with depression, it can be difficult to know how to help. In this Counsel Culture podcast, Nick Marks, CEO of Australian Institute of Family Counselling, will interview three people who share best practices in talking to someone who has depression.
Learn how to become a great listener
Mike was married to Maggie who had debilitating depression for thirty of their 33 years of marriage until she passed away in 2003. She developed polio at 3 and was hospitalised for two years.
Maggie was the life of the party and Mike describes their first three years of marriage as magical. When Maggie became pregnant with their first child, signs of depression started to emerge. At first, Mike described Maggie’s depression as sporadic but as time went on the frequency and severity increased. Mike recalls,
“It began with three episodes a year then after a few years it became 9 episodes lasting 1 to 3 weeks.”
While Maggie tried various antidepressants, shock therapy and had many visits in hospital she continued to struggle with depression and severe health problems as a result of post-polio syndrome. Mike recounts the difficult emotions that came to the surface in those years,
“For my wife she felt incredible shame and guilt that she was ruining our family.”
Maggie’s shame was often projected onto Mike who recalls living through those depressive episodes like walking on eggshells. Towards the end of Maggie’s life, she started to manifest deep anger and was eventually diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. In the last couple of years of Maggie’s life she could not function in her work and had to resign from her teaching position.
After Maggie’s death, Mike pursued studies in Christian counseling, which he described as a journey into self-discovery. He shares words of wisdom for those who find themselves living with a with a loved one who is suffering depression,
“One of the gifts any carer can give is to be a really good listener.”
Mike says it’s our natural tendency to try and rescue someone when we see them suffering but what someone who is going through a depressive episode needs is a listening ear. Mike says the lessons he has learned from his counselling training has equipped him to run a weekly men’s group for thirty years at his local church where he is walking alongside other men who are learning to come to terms with grief and loss in their own lives.
Learning to love others unconditionally
Chris is a pastor, father and author of “Down, Not Out: Depression, Anxiety, and the Difference Jesus Makes”. Chris recounts his personal journey with chronic depression that started at the age of 21 and led to him admitting himself into a psychiatric hospital at the age of 30 in 2014. He observes,
“I didn’t become depressed because I was overly pessimistic about life. I became depressed because I was overly optimistic about life.”
Chris says secular psychologists call the difference between how people would like things to be and their experience of life as the reality gap. As Chris was achieving life goals, he did not arrive at the utopia he was expecting. He also thinks that living as a perfectionist didn’t help,
“Being a perfectionist in a fallen world is a tortured reality. It’s not compatible, the world is not perfect.”
It was by Chris embracing his identity as a child of God while he was a patient in a psychiatric hospital that he could see being defined by what you do is shaky ground for living in a world that is filled with disappointments and can throw all sorts of curveballs. For Chris, 1 John 3:1 is his mission statement for life:
“See what great love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!”
Chris notes that a ‘quick fix’ mentality can affect the recovery of someone who has chronic depression, where it can sometimes be a 10, 20 or 30 year journey. If you are walking alongside someone with depression, he advises tempering your expectations around the timeframe for their recovery because that builds endurance and patience levels in friends and family which is what the person needs. Chris observes,
“The worst thing you can do is show conditional love to someone who is struggling because they are showing very conditional love to themselves at that moment.”
Chris admits that unconditional love is a difficult journey for friends and family of a loved one with depression, but displaying a long-term commitment to someone who has depression can be part of the healing and restorative process.
Embracing a correct theology of suffering
Karen Mason is a Professor of Counseling and Psychology at Gordon Cornwell and is an expert in the theory and practice of integrating Christian faith, depression and suicide prevention and has authored “Preventing Suicide: A Handbook for Pastors, Chaplains and Pastoral Counselors”.
Depression is one of the leading causes of disability in the world. Karen says depression can have a significant impact on a person’s ability to function at work, at school and in their relationships with family and friends. Depression doesn’t always manifest on its own in an individual and it can also be accompanied by anxiety. She notes,
“About 70% of people that experience depression also experience anxiety. As professionals we can be so fixated on depression that we miss the anxiety.”
Karen says that while mental health has been destigmatized over the years there is still a need for equipping people in churches to be able to recognise when someone they are talking to is struggling and may need professional help.
Karen says Christians need to embrace a correct theology of suffering, which can be found when we closely examine the Bible and see that believers are not spared from trials and sorrows. There are also great resources for the Bible in recognising how people of faith can face the gamut of human emotions, where Karen identifies that half of the Book of Psalms are psalms of lament.
Karen warns that some Christians can carry a skewed theology that views suffering in the Christian life as failure. Karen points to great men and women of God in the Bible who battled with anxious thoughts and feelings of hopelessness, including the Apostle Paul who famously says in 2 Corinthians 1:8 that the sufferings he endured for the gospel made him despair of life itself.
“People who are struggling with depression need to know that suffering is part of the Christian experience.”
Listen more to the Counsel Culture podcast here.
About Nick Marks

Nicholas Marks is the CEO of The Australian Institute of Family Counselling (aifc) – aifc is a specialised ministry, education and training, and service delivery organisation. Operating for over 25 years the aifc mission is transformed lives, flourishing relationships and changed communities through Christian counselling and equipping people for life.

Prior to this, Nicholas has previously worked in public health, business consulting, Federal Government, and a number of start-up organisations. Nicholas serves on numerous boards and is a Member of the AICD.