Helping Depressed People at Church

Here’s a question that originally appeared in Deacon Magazine in 2009:

Dear Dr. Alan,
We have a younger couple that has been going through a difficult time. The wife attempted suicide and has been hospitalized for 2 months for depression. She’s planning on returning to our church and we want to be supportive but most of us don’t know what to say or how to interact with her. Any advice?

Many people have expressed the following notion: “The Church is a hospital where wounded people come for restoration and healing.” But many others have made the following observation: “The Church shoots its wounded.” I like your question because it indicates that you want your church to be a hospital, not a firing squad. “Wounded” is a good word to describe someone who’s been depressed and suicidal. But wounds won’t heal without proper care and attention. There are three things you can do to help this lady with the healing process: respect her boundaries, give her grace, and lend her a hand.

Respect Her Boundaries
There was a time when mental health concerns were so stigmatized that no one dared discuss them out loud. Years ago, a lady was telling me about a church member’s depression. She looked both ways, leaned in, and whispered, “She’s been to see a psychiatrist.” I’m pretty sure I had to lip read the word psychiatrist. This conversation took place during an era when depression was considered to be a shameful indication of spiritual failure and a secret to be guarded at all costs.

But nowadays, the pendulum seems to have swung to the other side. What was once considered unbecoming to discuss is now spoken of openly and with seemingly few reservations. And it’s not just on the afternoon talk shows. Even churches, seeking to encourage realness and transparency, can unwittingly pressure struggling members to open up too much, too fast, and with too many people. Pretending the problem doesn’t exist isn’t healthy. But neither is an emotional strip tease.
So, I would let her know you respect her prerogatives as the gatekeeper. If she wants connection, she can open her gate. If she needs protection, she can close it. But those decisions are hers to make. Knowing that church members respect her boundaries will help her feel safe and hasten the healing.

Give Her Grace
Let me tell you a grace story. I have a friend who went through a serious depression, not unlike the one you’ve described. At the time, she was employed by a Christian ministry. Consequently, she felt exceedingly (though unnecessarily) shameful about being a person who supposedly had it all together but obviously didn’t. Her greatest fear was that she’d be banished to a “spiritual leper colony”—a place where she’d be confined until she could pull the pieces of her life and ministry back together. She had an appointment with her supervisor to discuss her job and future ministry involvement. To her, this upcoming meeting felt more like a sentencing hearing. But then, she was amazed by grace. This is what he said to her:
You’re not the first person in this ministry who’s been through something like this, and it’s far more common than you might expect. Your first priority, your only priority right now, is to do whatever you need to do to get better. See your counselor. Work as much as you like. Take as much time off as you need. You let us know when you’re ready to be back on the job at full speed. You are more important than your duties. Your job description right now is to take care of yourself.
In short, he demonstrated grace. He didn’t treat her like a crazy person, he believed in her, and he expressed optimism about her future. For her, this kind of grace demonstration was like a hyperbolic chamber that accelerated the healing process.

Lend Her a Hand
To put it another way, offer assistance. And, obviously, let her be the one to define the kind of assistance she needs. Listen carefully and do what you can to provide the requested help. Let me specifically mention a type of assistance to avoid and a type to offer.
The type to avoid is excessive advice-giving. It’s a natural impulse to help someone in the way you were once helped. It worked for you; why wouldn’t it work for her? But remember, she’s not you and your advice could unintentionally do more harm than good. She needs one doctor but many friends. You help her most by affirming the work she’s doing with her counselor and encouraging her to stick with the process.
The type to offer is prayer. She’d probably cringe at the prospect of being prayed for in group settings. But she’d be very encouraged to know that numerous individuals were praying for her privately. Pray for her health, for her growth, and that she would experience whatever good things God would want to bring out of this very bad thing.
In a sense, our churches should be “wound centers” where hurts inflicted upon fallen-world inhabitants can be healed. What gets wounded in hurtful relationships gets repaired through relationships with healthy church members.

Raising Nice Kids in a Nasty World

The negative influences to which our kids are exposed these days are plentiful while creative ideas for handling that exposure can be scarce. And with the proliferation of technologies that allow for new avenues of influence, it’s not likely to get any easier. With regards to this issue, it seems that parents are prone to making one of two big mistakes: under-reacting or over-reacting.

Some under-react. They may be oblivious to the threats or if they do recognize the dangers, they assume that nothing can be done so they do nothing—or very little. They may occasionally tell their kids to “be careful” and hope the warning will be enough. Under these circumstances, kids are likely to internalize the following messages: “My parents don’t take the threats seriously so, why should I?” or “If my parents are confused and overwhelmed about how to handle this stuff, so am I.” Consequently, these kids are left ill-equipped to fend off the plethora of corrupting influences.

Some over-react. That is, driven by a zeal to protect their kids from outside influences, some parents inadvertently end up stunting the development of the very thing that would help them their kids most—an internalized ability to self-regulate. For example, one of my college classmates grew up in a rigidly sheltered Christian home. As part of their desire to insulate their kids from negative outside influences, the parents had no television in the house. Now, this was in a day when probably the worst thing on TV was The Andy Griffith Show, Dick Van Dyke, and Petty Coat Junction. But the parents felt that any outside influence could have negative effects. One day in college, this friend of mine and I were together and we walked through a dorm lobby that had a TV. My friend stopped, looked at the TV, and became transfixed and mesmerized. It was the hardest thing for me to break him out of his trancelike state and move on through the lobby. He seemed to have no internal ability to handle this enticing external stimulus. When parents overly insulate their kids, they will likely internalize the following message: “The only way I can handle evil influences is to never be anywhere close to them.” The problem is, evil influences are all around us and we can’t escape them.

So, the best question for parents to help their kids answer is: “How can we live in an evil world while minimizing the influence of that evil?” I’ll make four suggestions: 1) Be informed, 2) Explain the “why’s” as well as the “what’s”, 3) Help them filter, and 4) Keep the discussion channels open

Be informed

Stay informed about pop culture. I know, I know. This seems tortuous for most parents. But understanding what your kids are up against is vitally necessary, though distasteful at times. Things aren’t like “the way they were when we kids” so our kids won’t be helped much if we’re operating off of old information. Read what they’re reading, watch the shows they watch, observed what video games they play. Some of it may be OK with you and some of it may not. But there’s no way to make informed decisions without up to date information.

Explain the “why’s” as well as the “what’s”

Kids need clarity about what’s OK with you and what’s not. In addition, they need to understand your rationale for those decisions. Without that understanding, they may keep the rules in your presence but violate them when they’re out from under your jurisdiction. Answering the why questions helps them internalize a process of moral decision-making that will continue long after they’re away from you. And isn’t that what you want?

Help them filter

We can’t insulate our kids from exposure to all the evils of modern society (unless cave-dwelling is acceptable you). But we can teach our kids to use “filters” to let the good stuff in and keep the bad stuff out. Just as antibodies inoculate us from diseases, the use of filters enables our kids to live in the midst of evil toxins without becoming infected. My college friend, it turns out, had limited filtering abilities so that when exposures occurred, he had built up no internal mechanisms for resisting the external enticements.

Keep the discussion channels open

Several things keep the channels open. Spend time with them. The subjects in greatest need of discussion usually come up on their time tables, not ours. Listen to them. Encouraging them to discuss their struggles (even if we’re not particularly interested) keeps them talking. Nothing shuts down talking like the lack of listening. Welcome questions. We should create an atmosphere where no question, regardless of the subject matter, is prohibited. If their questions threaten us, they’ll stop asking us. Or, they’ll ask someone else.

How Sane People Keep Us Sane

All aspects of dealing with manipulators—assessing them, avoiding their dramas, accepting the limits—are challenging. So challenging, in fact, that we won’t succeed without the support of others. Manipulators can be so confounding, so determined, and so frustrating that we’ll most likely fail if we try to go it alone. The understanding and reinforcement of other reasonable people is not a luxury but a necessity. Slaves in the pre-Civil War South understood this all too well. For all practical purposes, their masters operated under this unreasonable set of assumptions: “We’re good, you’re bad, and you exist for us. If you submit to our control, we’ll all get along just fine.” Lack of submission could—and often did—lead to physical harm. Their sufferings under that system of chattel slavery were eased somewhat by singing songs which came to be known as “Spirituals.” Through the lyrics, they could express thoughts and feelings to each other about their trials, their tribulations, and their hopes. Thus, the ability to endure was enhanced through mutual encouragement.

We may not be literally enslaved by manipulators, but the need for support is just as essential. Remember, his survival depends upon getting us to believe, “There’s nothing wrong with me but there’s definitely something wrong with you.” Without reference points for our sanity that others provide, it’s very easy to get swept up into that distortion and to become discouraged. Good conflict with manipulators is achievable only with the support of reasonable people relationships.

Boundaries With Manipulators

With reasonable people, we solve problems by working together to reach mutually satisfying solutions. Reasoning with reasonable people works, which makes for good conflict outcomes. But that doesn’t work with manipulators because they don’t have the necessary abilities. And if we attempt it, the frustration we experience puts us right back into the drama. Reasoning doesn’t work but a limited substitute does—setting boundaries. Boundaries accomplish what reasoning can’t. They restrain the problems in such a way that they no longer dominate the landscape of our lives.

For instance, Mr. Jones had an obnoxious neighbor with an obnoxious dog, who regularly dug up his flowers and made unwelcome deposits in his yard. All efforts to persuade the neighbor to leash his dog failed and it became clear to Mr. Jones that he was attempting the impossible—trying to reason with an unreasonable person. Finally, Mr. Jones put up a fence, which kept the canine terrorist from terrorizing his existence. In this example, no mutually agreeable resolution was reached because the neighbor’s unwillingness to reason made that impossible. But Mr. Jones did find a way to keep the dog out of his yard. The problem was not actually solved but his boundary enabled it to be restrained. He improved the dog situation by putting up a fence. In this case, the solution that couldn’t be achieved through reasoning was achieved through boundaries. Yes, it cost him something but it worked. With reasonable people, problems are fixed when both sides participate in the reasoning process. With manipulators, problems are restrained, not when both sides participate, but when the reasonable person does a good job of setting boundaries.

Never Let ‘Em See You Sweat

Manipulators attempt to get us to react, take “snapshots” of the reactions, and then use those pictures to indict us. We can help minimize the likelihood of reacting in two ways:

  • Plan Your Response. Reactions are impulsive; responses are intentional. To plan responses, we need to know what role is being required of us. If our manipulator is a master, we’ll need to plan ways to avoid subservience. If the person is a messiah, we’ll need to avoid the obligatory role of gratitude. If he is a martyr, we’ll need to find ways to avoid being guilted into rescuing behaviors. It’s usually best to refuse our roles quietly rather than confrontationally. If we say, “I know what you’re up to and I’m not going to allow you to dominate me,” that statement alone makes us drama participants. Better to refuse quietly, disallowing him the gratification of observing a reaction. If we don’t react, the manipulator will likely think his emotional remote control is broken and try to fix it by pushing the buttons harder. In the short term, he may become a worse version of himself if he thinks his strategy is failing. If we don’t remember this, we’ll find ourselves thinking, “This isn’t helping; it’s hurting.” Actually, more vigorous button pushing on his part shows that the plan is succeeding.
  • Display No Reaction. This is what we need to do with manipulators who push our buttons, hoping desperately for a reaction that can be used against us. It’s not that we won’t have reactions but that we choose not to display them. We need to restrain externally what we feel internally. This idea has been expressed through phrases like, “Never let ‘em see you sweat” or “The best response is no response” or “Don’t feed into it.” Poker players learn to wear “poker faces” for this very reason. The phrase, “Kill em with kindness” applies here because displaying kindness versus agitation disallows the drama enticement. Displaying no reaction keeps us out of the drama. And that’s not being passive; it’s being powerful.