On Depression and Anxiety: How to Support Those Who Struggle

Image Courtesy of Glenn Carsons. 

Image Courtesy of Glenn Carsons. 

I think I’ve been writing this in my head for weeks, the words clawing at my brain, trying to get out. I’m one of those people who has to find meaning in every evil thing, a lesson that God is allowing me to learn the hard way because I need to learn it. My grandmother always says that the best lesson is the bought lesson if you don’t have to pay too dear. To be honest, I almost did pay too dearly.

Maybe that is why I have to write this. I want to be clear: I’m not writing this to punish the people who did these things. I’m not writing to get attention or to talk about the horrible things they did to me. The people who love me already know what those people did, as do the people who did this. And to be honest, they are so proud of their actions that I don’t think me talking about their actions would be a punishment—more like another victory.

I want to share with you what I have learned about the best ways to help a person going through depression, anxiety, and/or emotional abuse. I want to share this because I encounter people every day who have experienced or are experiencing these things. I work closely with students in my classroom, coworkers in my office, and friends in my life all of whom have experienced some degree of what I have experienced over the last five months. And for the people who haven’t experienced it, I have seen that they often want to help and don’t know how.

I chose to live my experiences openly not because I needed attention (as the main abuser has repeatedly claimed), but because I needed a community and trusted that if I reached out, one would form. I was right. People I hadn’t spoken to in years (some, a decade) reached out to tell me that they had a similar experience or that even if they hadn’t, they wanted to support me because they cared about me. This is so important. We are communal creatures. We cannot survive alone.

Image by Annie Spratt. 

Image by Annie Spratt. 

 

Before I begin, there are a few things you have to know and accept in order to help someone suffering from depression and anxiety:

1.     Depression and anxiety are real. They are scientific facts that involve chemicals in the brain and hormones in the body. Depression/Anxiety is not their imagination, is not someone seeking attention, is not something that anyone wants to experience. It is real and can permanently impact a person’s life.

2.     External stressors (a parent with cancer, dealing with an illness, work/school related stress, abuse, and many other things) can make depression and anxiety worse, or can even cause it. This means that another human being’s actions, whether intentionally or not, can cause or worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety. There is an intimate relationship between our psyche and our body—as Christians we accept this because the body and soul are intimately connected. If you harm someone’s body, it can impact their soul. If you harm someone’s soul, it can impact their body.

3.     While some people will harm another accidentally, there are actually people who will harm them intentionally because it brings them pleasure. Unfortunately, this is not as rare as people would like to think. A large group of these people are Narcissistic Sociopaths.

4.     There are external indications that a person is suffering from anxiety or depression. Sometimes the external indications are the side effects of the illness (anxiety attacks, exhaustion) and sometimes they are the coping mechanisms that person has learned to deal with their illness (addictions to alcohol, drugs, or even an unhealthy addiction to exercise; self harm).

5.     People with depression and anxiety need a community to support them. People who have been emotionally abused are particularly in need of support, but will be more hesitant to ask for it. Be aware. No one can survive this alone.

 

Now, what you will have to know and accept about me in order for this to have meaning for you:

1.     I am a devout Catholic whose knowledge of the faith is both personal and academic (I have an MA in Theology from Notre Dame). My perspective is intrinsically Roman Catholic, although I hope it’s accessible to all Christians. I think, though, that even non-Christians can understand what I am saying and relate accordingly.

2.     As a child, I was emotionally abused by an older relative. One of the most painful parts of this is that I was told on a daily basis that I was unlovable, a burden, too much, and that I should never have been born. Those wounds still impact me on a daily basis.

3.     I have suffered from depression and anxiety for my whole life, largely as a result of being abused, but also because depression runs deep on both sides of my family. I have dealt with these things in numerous ways, including going to counseling both as a teen and as an adult. I am currently on medication to provide the missing chemicals that my brain needs to help me maintain emotional health and lead a normal life.

4.     When I was a child, I learned that self harm would help release the emotional pain and although I gave that up in my late teens/early 20s, I had a relapse a little over a year ago that my closest “friend” was aware of and this put me in a terribly vulnerable position.

5.     While I am unable to diagnose another person because I do not have the training, my research in this has led me to refer to the main abuser in my situation as “the sociopath.” As a Catholic, I sincerely hope that person does have a mental disorder because in my faith tradition, we believe that mental illness takes away a person’s free will to commit mortal sins and therefore frees them from the threat of hell for the actions they take because of their illness. Either way, this person and the people who have helped her are in need of prayers. I have forgiven them, although I still suffer from the repercussions of their actions.

 

Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about how to help.

I will do this in four parts.

The first part is “how to respond in a human way.” I put this first because there are some responses that are NOT acceptable. Most of you will find these obvious, but in the last five months I have experienced every one. While I know that those people are made in the image and likeness of God, their responses/actions were absolutely not acceptable and not human. Hence, the section title. Many of these will be negative actions—meaning “don’t do x” instead of “do x.” The reason for this is simple: please, for the sake of being human, do anything other than x.

The second part is “how to respond as a friend.” Here is where most people will want to be and those who reached out to me in this way are forever in my heart.

The third part is “how to respond as a good Catholic/Christian friend.” Here is where Christians and Catholics will want to be. I am amazingly blessed with many such friends.

The last and final part is “how to respond as a good Catholic/Christian community.” Here you will find the ways that I think parishes, churches, and organizations can better help their congregants to deal with mental illness and support others.

 

1.     How to Respond in a Human Way

Photo by Timothy Meinberg. 

Photo by Timothy Meinberg. 

Do not, under any circumstances, tell another human that the world would be better off without them. I should not have to tell you this, but apparently that’s a thing people do. If someone is already suicidal, this is an invitation. If they are not, it’s encouragement to think about it.

On a personal note, after months of what I have started to term psychological warfare, I blocked the sociopath from being able to email me because she was harassing me via email. In the block message, I took the five worst things she said to me and applied them to her. (I know, this wasn't kind and I am ashamed that I did it.) This line was one that made my stomach churn just writing it to another person, even someone who had done me so much harm. If you are someone who can say this to another person and think you’re right to do so, please get help. This is not okay and you are not okay.

Do not use information entrusted to you in confidence to hurt another person. Again, I shouldn’t have to say this, but the sociopath using her knowledge of my childhood abuse to hurt me was not a human thing to do. Humans don’t do that to each other. Sociopaths, incredibly broken humans who need severe emotional help, actual demons—that’s who does that.

Do not tell another person they are a burden, “too much,” etc. Humans are not burdens. While no person should be expected to carry another through life, we are all responsible for each other. Additionally, it is common knowledge (if you watch any American television at all) that people who consider suicide often do so because they think they are a burden to those around them. Just like the paragraph above, telling another that they are a burden is an invitation to take their own life.

Do not compare this person’s illness to another’s or in any way indicate that an unhealthy coping mechanism is acceptable. I already told you about my coping mechanisms. Want to know when I started having panic attacks for the first time since college? The day after one of the sociopath’s other friends said they had a relapse in cutting. She had known I was doing this for over a year and was okay with it, but this other person’s relapse was so urgent that our entire weekend trip became all about this other person. When we got home, I started waking up screaming because my best friend was telling me that it was okay to hurt myself because I’m not as important as someone else. That is direct causality.

Do not refer to another’s mental illness as “drama” or otherwise indicate that they are doing it to get attention. One of my best friends responded to the fact that I was suicidal by telling me he didn’t want my drama. In the same vein, the sociopath called up a bunch of people (including my mother) telling them that I was threatening to kill myself because I wanted attention. There is so much wrong with this. One, you are writing off another person’s suffering by saying that it’s not real, that they are choosing it, or that it’s all in their head. Two, you are simultaneously claiming that they are doing it specifically for attention. When people do things for attention, the best way to help them is to ignore them, right? So everyone that she reached out to who believed her chose not to offer help because that would be the “best” thing for me. For any narcissistic sociopaths reading this, this is how you start the process of manipulating another person to commit suicide. For normal people, do you want that?

Never tell someone they are a waste of time. Human beings are not a waste of time. No one who is a human would say this. It’s the same as saying that you have no value. Being told that everything we had ever done together was a waste of time was so heartbreaking. Here, I had thought we were friends, but it turns out that we weren’t and that I was just a waste of time.

Don’t spread rumors about people with mental illness. Not only did the sociopath call up random people and gossip about me, her friends did too. I have had multiple people approach me about them talking shit. If you don’t want to be my friend, fine. Don’t take what you know about me and spread it around. Definitely don’t spread around things that aren’t true! (No, I did not threaten to kill myself because I wanted attention.)

 

2.     How to Respond as a Good Friend

Image courtesy of Matthew Henry. 

Image courtesy of Matthew Henry. 

Believe them. Whether it’s believing that they are suffering or believing that another is abusing them, people in this situation need to be believed. Tell them that you hear them, you believe them, and that you care. SO important!

Reach out to the person, tell them they are important to you. It’s hard to fight off the belief that we are unimportant, especially if another person is telling us that we are. Having friends, family members, and even acquaintances reaching out and affirming that you are valuable can help with the process of fighting depression or anxiety. It’s not that your reaching out will fix them, it’s that you might give them the motivation to be fixed.

Give specific examples of the things about that person that you love or appreciate. I really appreciated the emails and messages that I received after the initial event where people were telling me the good things about me. It helped me to fix my perspective. When another person (or your own psyche) is telling you that you have no value as a human being, it’s easy to start to believe that’s true. The people who reached out to me and gave me specific things about myself to look at and appreciate were really helpful in helping me snap my brain back into place. “Hey, that’s right: I am valuable and people appreciate me because x, y, and z!”

Offer to help. Specific things are best. Whether it’s bringing them food, offering to help them move out of an abusive home, or even just saying, “hey, call me anytime,” we notice the things you offer. Still, even saying, “Let me know how I can help you” is just so helpful in and of itself. It’s good to know who is willing to help you move out of this dark space. There are so many things that come up: from needing a rescue to advice to just needing someone to sit with. I am so grateful to the people who helped me and even just offered to help me. I received so many offers for phone calls or chats that it made me feel less alone. Thank you! However, please note: Just because they never take you up on it, doesn’t mean they don’t appreciate it or that the offer wasn’t helpful. For instance, I received probably twenty new phone numbers as a result of all this and people reaching out to me, but I have phone anxiety and don’t talk to anyone but my parents on the phone. Just knowing those people were there, though, was so helpful because I knew I could reach out if I wanted to.

Offer resources. I don’t mean money (although sometimes that’s helpful, too), but instead resources to help them. I was lucky to know that the psychologists on campus were there already, but my friends were quick to encourage me to go. One friend offered a spiritual counselor I could see, several others offered their homes. Several superheroes offered to help me pack and move. Friends who were far away supplied legal advice, including doing their own research on legal clinics in my area that could potentially help me get out of my lease. 

Just be there, even if you can’t “be” there. One of my best friends skyped me from Korea. Another texted me every day to check in (which was sometimes the highlight of my day). My friends who just sat with me, watched movies/tv with me, and distracted me by talking incessantly about their research (love you) were a huge part of me beginning to heal. For the first few weeks after the event, I studied in Denton almost every day. Just having someone to sit with who knew me, knew what was going on, and loved me anyways was a huge help. Thank you.

Never tell someone that they ask too much. In my experience, it’s usually the people who really do ask too much that claim another is asking too much. You have the right to say no when someone, even your best friend, asks you for something. You have the right to kindly say, “Hey, I need more time for x” or “Hey, I need to prioritize myself right now.” If you’re not willing or able to help a friend human at the moment, you need to recognize that it’s not really about them, it’s about you. The fact that the person who assumed I would cook, clean, organize, get the mail, pay the bills, and take care of her every whim, turned and told me I was asking too much when I needed a little support (because my dad had cancer and I had just been diagnosed with PCOS) is pretty indicative of how well I was valued in that relationship. If you care about someone, you don’t tell them that they’re asking too much. If you truly love someone, there’s no such thing as asking too much, so long as there is mutual give and take.

If someone calls you up to gossip about them, shut that shit down. I’m so grateful for the people who said that it didn’t matter what anyone said about me, they knew who I was and wouldn’t listen. I’m even more grateful for the people who have told me that so and so called them or messaged them, but they shut them down. If you respect another person, you won’t believe rumors about them and won’t allow them to be spread if you can stop it.

Don’t defend the abuser. I did not need anyone to tell me that the sociopath didn’t “mean” to hurt me. (Really, how do you accidentally tell someone that the world would be better without them?) If you find yourself defending the abuser, just be aware that you’re slowly being manipulated into agreeing with them.

Don’t be silent. There are a few friends who believe me and know what happened, but have stayed silent because it’s easier that way. No. A good friend will stand up for you. Would you want me to be silent if this happened to you?

On taking sides: In an abuse situation, there is no such thing as being neutral. Just by remaining friends with someone who is abusive, you are indicating that their behavior is acceptable on some level. I know this is hard to hear because we are so ingrained with the belief that if we don’t take sides, we are able to escape the discomfort of making a decision. But the thing is, staying friends with an abuser is making a moral decision that most people shouldn’t be comfortable with.

In an ideal world, we would be able to stay friends with the abuser while condemning their actions (love the sinner, hate the sin). But in reality, it doesn’t work that way. This isn’t a coincidence. The abuser will demand that you not accept their actions as real. The sociopath demanded that they take her side by lying and manipulating the situation. In the end, it was easier to believe her lies and say that I’m just “crazy” instead of believing the inconvenient truth that I was telling. 

 

3.     How to Respond as a Good Catholic/Christian Friend

Image by Ben White. 

Image by Ben White. 

One of my biggest struggles in my friendships now is that I was formed in community. I went through intentional communal formation for two years in my graduate program and again in discerning with the Sisters of Providence and later as a Providence Associate. In community, we are all about right relationship. Right relationship is often never easy (ask anyone who lives in community). We always say that living in right relationship sometimes is like living with a mirror three inches from your face: you become aware of your own imperfections, your own weaknesses. I think that is why it’s so easy for good Christians to avoid good Christian friendships, because a good Christian friendship challenges us to be better, which is hard, painful, and generally uncomfortable. I grew used to doing that uncomfortable work. When you live in a house with nine other people, there’s no space for passive aggression or repressing problems. This is part of what went wrong in my friend group.

If you want to be a helpful, good Christian friend, reread 1 Corinthians 13 before you begin.

Remind them that they are loved by God, made in Her image and likeness, and that they have a purpose ordained by heaven. To non-believers, this seems cheap, like a throw-away statement that means nothing, but to people who truly believe in the Gospel, this is something that we need daily reminders of. If another human says I have no value, it should not matter—and will not matter if my faith life is strong. Depression often puts a block between us and God that makes it hard to believe in our value as His children.  Reminding people who are suffering from depression, anxiety, or abuse that God loves them is the most basic thing you should do as a good Christian.

Remind them, and yourself, that the Lord’s ways are not our ways. Again, it seems cheap—but the reminder that our suffering is really God breaking us down to put us together in a more whole and healthy way will help the one suffering.

Tell them that you love them. They need to hear it.

Actually love them. Remember that love is patient and kind. Love is also protective. Remember “Love always protects, always trusts, always perseveres.” Think of how the Lord loves his people, the way he defends Israel. If you love someone, you cannot be silent when they are being abused. You have to speak up and condemn the sin. This leads into the next one.

Love the abuser. Speak up and condemn the sin. This is also a way to love the abuser. Love does not ignore imperfections, but invites us to grow closer to God. Friendship is a sacrament—its aim is to make both persons holier. The mutual friends who were bad friends to me were also bad friends to her (and I told them so). A good friend would hold them accountable for their actions. “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices in the truth.”

Offer to pray for them. Then, actually pray for them. Again, this may seem like a throw-away statement, but I live my life so much more comfortably with the knowledge that I have like 300 sisters who pray for me regularly. There’s a confidence that comes only from knowing that there is a community of people who are asking God to provide for you. And besides, when someone you love is struggling with mental illness, you will often feel like there’s nothing you can do. You can pray. God has it all in Her hands.

A note: Prayer is not a punishment. I get so sick of people saying, “I’ll pray for you,” like it was a nice version of “f*** you.” Praying for another person is not really praying if you’re hoping they will a)stop telling the truth, b)become exactly who you want them to be, or c)actually get worse. This is not okay. You actually have to have someone’s best interests and entrust them to God. That’s part of what this whole Christian thing is all about.

Pray for the abuser. Even though I wasn’t strong enough to pray for her at the beginning, some of my friends were. This not only helped because she needs prayers, but also because it reminded me that I needed to do the same.

Offer resources. Just as a good friend offers resources, a good Christian friend will offer good Christian resources. As I said before, a friend recommended a spiritual counselor. Others recommended prayer books or scripture passages. Still others recommended saints to pray with. When I was told I wasn’t welcome at my usual Mass, a dozen people recommended Churches and even offered to go to Mass with me. That leads me to the next one.

Offer to go to Mass with them. Losing your friendgroup is rough enough, but losing your regular parish is horrible. It’s scary to go to a new place alone when you’re experiencing depression, anxiety, or desolation. I’m so grateful to the friends who offered to go to Mass with me or invited me to their Church. I’m still hoping to take you all up on that.

Offer to pray with them. Maybe it’s just me, but having a friend sitting and praying with or over me is so calming and comforting. Sometimes when you’re suffering from depression or anxiety, you want to talk to God but don’t have the right words to say. Having another person praying with you helps a lot.

Sit with them in the garden of Gethsemane. Like Christ, I sat there begging the Lord to take this cup from me. It took me a long time to accept that it was what it was and I had to accept it. I’m so grateful for those who sat with me during that time.

Make space for them: in your home, at your table, in your heart. No one can get through this alone. Sometimes the most Christian thing to do is just sit and be Christ to the other.

 

4.     How to Respond as a Good Catholic/Christian Community

Image by David Beale. 

Image by David Beale. 

Never take the side of the abuser. Everyone needs God and everyone deserves access to the sacraments. However, if the abuser is threatening the person or preventing them from attending Mass, that needs to be dealt with immediately. If the abuser is not actually a member of the faith group (not baptized or confirmed), this should be doubly so. The person who told me I am no longer welcome at the parish I worked at for four years is being confirmed there on Easter. I feel like that’s the church giving me the finger in the biggest way possible. No wonder people leave Catholicism.

Don’t deny the reality of mental illness. It’s so easy to write depression or anxiety off as someone just being sad or not having a good enough prayer life when the reality is that God made some people with a brain that can’t produce the chemicals to give them emotional stability. I’m sure there’s a reason for this. But you can’t help someone if you don’t admit they’re real.

Offer faithful education to the parish/church as a whole in how to better support members with mental illness. Every Sunday for the last three years (up until I was stopped from attending Mass), one of the parishioners has come up to my mentor (who I was always sitting next to) to give him an update on how her son, who lives in a mental institution half the time, is doing. I know that she, as a family member, could use more support from her community. I know that I, as someone who suffers with mental illness, could use more support. I know that some of my friends or fellow Catholics could use more information or faithful training in how to work with both people with depression and people who love people with depression.

Offer support groups and counseling or support organizations that offer these things. Did you know that 18% of the US adult population experiences mental illness? That’s not counting the prevalence of depression and anxiety in teenagers. Speaking as a Catholic, both as a devout member and as a former Catechist, if someone looking for this kind of support can’t find it here, they will find it in a Protestant Church. If you don’t want to support people, don’t complain about those people leaving. Note that my current spiritual counselor is Protestant. She’s amazing and kind and so very wise. If I were looking for a similar relationship in the Catholic Church, it would be much harder. I had a wonderful spiritual director in college and during my time in Indianapolis, but the fact is there are not enough spiritual directors to go around. And the ones who are trained are often associated with a subgroup that has an agenda. If you’re Catholic, you know what I’m talking about. I’ve been incredibly blessed in that God has provided someone every time I have searched, but I know others who can never find someone that fits because the SD is either too conservative, too liberal, too racist, too obsessed with particular devotions and closed off to others, etc. And because you have to go to privately owned retreat centers, they are all too expensive for a graduate student to afford.

Every parish or diocese should have something in place to support these members of the community. Remember that when we say we are called to protect the most vulnerable, it doesn’t just mean the unborn. People who suffer mental illness and those who love them are incredibly vulnerable.

Photo by Daniel Seng. 

Photo by Daniel Seng. 

 

In conclusion

There are probably a lot of things I left out that would also be helpful. I’m not a psychologist and, because I’m not yet 30 (the general required age for training), I am not a trained Spiritual Director. I have done Spiritual Direction and I have, both as a minister and as a professor, worked closely with students who suffer from mental illness. Moreover, I am living with depression and anxiety and have just escaped an emotionally abusive relationship. This is just my reporting on my experiences: what hurt, what helped, and what I wish I had.

 

I have a few more pieces of advice for dealing with people with mental illness, or really, people in general:

Remember: Not every joke is funny. For the last three years, I have been the butt of every joke in my former friend group. I was the youngest and I’m not good at humor, so it made me an easy victim for jokes about how innocent I am or how inexperienced. It made them feel superior and I seemed to take it all in stride, so they thought it was okay. However, our friends would often laugh when the sociopath was really saying/doing something that she knew would really upset or hurt me. She had a tendency to say things to really upset me right before we would meet up with friends so that I would be quiet or reserved and she could have fun with others. She would then make a joke about me that the others would laugh at, thinking it was all in good fun. I know that the others didn’t realize what was happening, but it added to the strain.

Even if you have known someone for literally their whole life, you still don’t know everything that has happened to them. Because I am a generally cheerful person and tend to love everyone around me, it was easy for my friends to forget that I am a survivor of abuse. There are things about me that few of them were aware of and there are things about me that none of them were aware of. The sociopath knew almost everything and was able to use that to hurt me. The people around us could sometimes have no idea what was happening because they simply didn’t know.

Just remember, human beings are ineffable mysteries. Even if you think you know someone well, you will never know everything. Act accordingly. Err on the side of kindness.

And to all of those reading this who are suffering with depression and anxiety: Remember, you are valued. You are loved. You are not a burden or a waste of time. The world is better because you are in it.

Photo by Gaelle Marcelle. 

Photo by Gaelle Marcelle.