How to Help Depressed Ones Regain Joy
EPAPHRODITUS, a first-century Christian disciple, was depressed. He had been sent to attend to the needs of the imprisoned apostle Paul but had fallen seriously ill. Though Epaphroditus had recovered, he was depressed because his home congregation, which had sent him to Rome, had “heard he had fallen sick.” (Philippians 2:25, 26) Being so far away but wanting to ease their mind about this brought on depression. Likely, he also felt that they considered him a failure. How could he be helped to regain his joy?
Epaphroditus was sent back to his home in Philippi carrying a letter from the apostle Paul. Therein, Paul instructed the congregation: “Give him the customary welcome in the Lord with all joy; and keep holding men of that sort dear.” (Philippians 2:27-30) Philippian Christians were urged to draw Epaphroditus close to them in a way that would befit the distinctive quality of fellowship typical of the Christian congregation. Their consoling words would show him that he was highly valued, yes, ‘held dear.’ This joyful attention would go a long way in helping him to find relief from his mental depression.
This example shows that although Christians as a whole “rejoice in the Lord,” some among them suffer various forms of depression. (Philippians 4:4) Severe mental depression is a serious emotional disorder that has even led to suicide. At times, brain chemistry and other physical factors are involved. Nevertheless, depression can often be reduced through discerning help provided by others. Thus, Paul gave the exhortation: “Speak consolingly to the depressed souls.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) Congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses should, therefore, joyfully provide emotional support to depressed souls. This responsibility was recognized by the modern Christian organization way back in 1903, for The Watch Tower then said of depressed souls, or fainthearted ones: “Faint-hearted and weak, would need aid, support, encouragement.” But how can you help depressed souls?
First, by showing “fellow feeling,” you may be able to help the depressed one to reveal the “anxious care” in his heart. Thereafter, “the good word” from you may help him to rejoice. (1 Peter 3:8; Proverbs 12:25) Just letting him speak freely and sense your concern may bring much relief. “I had a couple of friends I could really pour my heart out to,” explained Mary, a single Christian who struggled with depression. “I needed someone to listen.” Having someone with whom to share innermost thoughts about the tribulations of life can mean very much.
More is needed, however, than just listening and giving such superficial advice as, “Look on the bright side of life” or, “Think in a positive way.” Such statements could betray a lack of empathy and be entirely out of place when another person is depressed, even as Proverbs 25:20 indicates in saying: “He that is removing a garment on a cold day is as . . . a singer with songs upon a gloomy heart.” Unrealistically optimistic remarks may also leave the depressed individual feeling even more perturbed. Why? Because such efforts do not address the reasons for his depression.
Strengthen With Words
A severely depressed person feels not simply sad but probably worthless and without hope. The Greek word translated “depressed souls” literally means “ones of little soul.” One Greek scholar defines the word in this way: “One who is labouring under such trouble, that his heart sinks within him.” Thus, his emotional resources have dried up, and his self-esteem has sagged.—Compare Proverbs 17:22.
The patriarch Job said: “I would strengthen you with the words of my mouth.” (Job 16:5) The Hebrew word for “strengthen” is sometimes rendered “fortify” or “reinforce.” It is used to describe how the temple was ‘made strong’ by means of structural repairs. (Isaiah 41:10; Nahum 2:1; 2 Chronicles 24:13) Your words must skillfully rebuild the depressed person’s self-esteem, brick by brick, as it were. Doing this requires that you appeal to his “power of reason.” (Romans 12:1) The 1903 issue of The Watch Tower cited earlier said regarding depressed ones: “Lacking . . . self-esteem, they need to be pushed to the front a little, in order to bring out what talents they really possess, for their own encouragement and for the blessing also of the entire household of faith.”
The Bible example of Elkanah and his depressed wife Hannah illustrates how you can strengthen with words, as Job did. Elkanah had two wives. One of them, Peninnah, had several children, but Hannah was barren. Likely, Hannah considered herself worthless. (Compare Genesis 30:1.) As if this load were not heavy enough, Peninnah vexed her to the point that she broke down in tears and lost her appetite. Though Elkanah was unaware of the depth of her distress, on seeing her situation, he inquired: “Hannah, why do you weep, and why do you not eat, and why does your heart feel bad?”—1 Samuel 1:1-8.
Elkanah’s kindly, unaccusing questions gave Hannah opportunity to put her feelings into words. Whether she replied or not, she was helped to analyze why she likely felt worthless. So, too, a depressed soul may say, ‘I am just a bad person.’ You could ask, ‘Why do you feel that way?’ Then listen carefully as he unburdens to you what he feels in his heart.—Compare Proverbs 20:5.
Elkanah then asked Hannah this very strengthening question: “Am I not better to you than ten sons?” Hannah was reminded of his affection for her, despite her barrenness. He considered her precious, and she could therefore conclude: ‘Well, I am not so worthless after all. I really do have the deep love of my husband!’ His words fortified Hannah, for she began to eat and went on to the temple.—1 Samuel 1:8, 9.
Just as Elkanah was specific and drew his wife’s attention to a legitimate reason for her to feel better about herself, those who wish to help depressed persons must do likewise. For example, a Christian named Naomi said this about what helped her to regain her joy: “Some of the friends praised the way I had raised my son, the way I kept my home, and even the way I kept up my appearance despite my depression. This encouragement meant so much!” Yes, deserved commendation helps a depressed soul to see his or her good qualities and make a proper estimate of self-worth.
If your wife is depressed, why not seek to build her up in harmony with the words of Proverbs 31:28, 29? There we read: “Her owner rises up, and he praises her. There are many daughters that have shown capableness, but you—you have ascended above them all.” Still, a depressed wife may not accept such an assessment, since she may feel like a failure because of being unable to care for household tasks as well as she thinks she should. By reminding her of the woman she is inside, and what she was like before experiencing depression, however, you may be able to convince her that your praise is not empty flattery. You might also acknowledge that what she now does represents a supreme effort. You could say: ‘I know what it took for you to do this. How commendable that you are putting forth that much effort!’ Receiving the approval and praise of one’s mate and children, those who know one the best, is vital for rebuilding self-esteem.—Compare 1 Corinthians 7:33, 34.
Use of Bible examples may help a depressed person to see what changes in thinking may be necessary. For instance, perhaps an individual is overly sensitive about the opinions of others. You might discuss the example of Epaphroditus and ask: ‘Why do you think he became depressed when he learned that his home congregation had heard of his sickness? Was he really a failure? Why did Paul say to hold him dear? Did the real value of Epaphroditus as a person depend on the privilege of service he held?’ Such questions may help the depressed Christian to make personal application and realize that he is not a failure.
“Support the Weak”
The Bible urges: “Support the weak.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14) The existence of a network of Christian friends who can provide practical care is another advantage of true religion. Real friends are those “born for when there is distress,” and they truly stick with a depressed person. (Proverbs 17:17) When the apostle Paul felt “laid low” and had “fears within,” he was comforted “by the presence of Titus.” (2 Corinthians 7:5, 6) Similarly, warmhearted visits and telephone calls at appropriate times are likely to be deeply appreciated by depressed souls. You might ask if there is any way you can give practical help, such as running errands, doing housework, or the like.* A Christian named Maria says: “When I was depressed, a friend wrote to me several times and always included encouraging scriptures. I would read the letter over and over, crying as I read it. Such letters were like gold to me.”
After encouraging the congregation to help “the depressed souls,” Paul says: “Be long-suffering toward all. See that no one renders injury for injury to anyone else.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14, 15) Patience is vital, for because of mental pain, negative thinking, and exhaustion from a lack of sleep, a depressed person may respond with “wild talk,” as did Job. (Job 6:2, 3) Rachelle, a Christian whose mother became seriously depressed, revealed: “Many times Mom would say something very hateful. Most of these times, I tried to remind myself of the kind of person Mom really is—loving, kind, and generous. I learned that depressed persons say many things that they do not mean. The worst thing that one can do is to return evil words or actions.”
Some mature Christian women may especially be in a position to bring relief to other women suffering emotional anguish. (Compare 1 Timothy 5:9, 10.) These capable Christian women can make it a point to speak with such ones consolingly on fitting occasions. At times it is more appropriate that mature Christian sisters rather than brothers continue to help a woman. By organizing matters and supervising them properly, Christian elders can see to it that the depressed souls receive the needed care.
Elders With Educated Tongues
Especially must spiritual shepherds have “knowledge and insight” so that they will “know how to talk to encourage the weary.” (Jeremiah 3:15; Isaiah 50:4, Beck) If an elder is not careful, however, he might unintentionally make a depressed person feel worse. For instance, Job’s three companions supposedly went to “sympathize with him and comfort him.” But their words, motivated by a wrong view of Job’s predicament, served to ‘crush’ him rather than comfort him.—Job 2:11; 8:1, 5, 6; 11:1, 13-19; 19:2.
Various articles in Watch Tower publications have outlined principles that can be applied in counseling individuals.* Most elders have applied such material. Yet, in some cases thoughtless statements by elders—either on a personal level or in talks—have been very harmful. So let elders not ‘speak thoughtlessly as with the stabs of a sword’ but with the ‘healing tongue of the wise ones.’ (Proverbs 12:18) If an elder thinks of the possible impact of his remarks before he speaks, his words can be soothing. Therefore, elders, be quick to listen and slow to draw conclusions without having the whole picture.—Proverbs 18:13.
When elders take a genuine interest in depressed persons, such individuals feel loved and appreciated. Such unselfish care may move these individuals to overlook any discouraging remarks. (James 3:2) Depressed persons are often overwhelmed with guilt, and elders can help them to get a balanced view of matters. Even when a serious sin has been committed, the spiritual care provided by the elders can help ‘what is lame to be healed.’—Hebrews 12:13.
When depressed persons feel that their prayers are ineffective, elders can pray with them and for them. By reading with them Bible-based articles dealing with depression, elders can ‘grease’ these individuals with soothing spiritual words. (James 5:14, 15) Elders can also help a depressed one to take Scriptural steps to resolve any personal differences he or she may have with someone, if this is a problem. (Compare Matthew 5:23, 24; 18:15-17.) Often, such conflicts, especially in the family, are at the root of depression.
Realize that recovery takes time. Even Elkanah’s loving efforts did not immediately relieve Hannah of her depression. Her own prayers as well as reassurances by the high priest finally led to relief. (1 Samuel 1:12-18) Hence, be patient if there is slow response. Of course, elders in general are not doctors and may therefore find their efforts limited in some cases. They, along with members of the depressed person’s family, may need to encourage that one to seek professional help. If necessary, elders or family members can clearly explain to any professional the importance of respecting the depressed one’s religious convictions.
Until God’s new world, no one will have perfect physical, mental, or emotional health. In the meantime, any Christian who loses his joy because of depression can draw strength not only from the Christian congregation but also from our heavenly Father, “who comforts the depressed.”—2 Corinthians 7:6, New American Standard Bible.
See the article “Defeating Depression—How Others Can Help” in Awake! of November 8, 1987, pages 12-16.
See the articles “An Educated Tongue—‘To Encourage the Weary’” in The Watchtower of June 1, 1982, and “‘Spiritual Words’ for the Mentally Distressed” in the issue of November 15, 1988.
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HOW TO SPEAK CONSOLINGLY
□ BE LONG-SUFFERING—It may take repeated discussions, so be patient. Overlook “wild talk” that the depressed one may speak because of frustration.—Job 6:3.
□ STRENGTHEN WITH WORDS—Help the depressed one to see his or her good qualities. Give specific commendation. Show that problems, past bad experiences, or shortcomings do not determine one’s personal worth. Explain why God loves and cares about him or her.—Job 16:5.