By Roxanne Smith

We’ve all heard about depression – whether from a college textbook, or from an episode of “Oprah” – but it’s another thing to encounter it personally. Maybe you’ve suffered from depression yourself. Or maybe you’ve wondered whether a friend or family member is showing signs of depression.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, depression frequently has symptoms like these:

  • Changes in sleep. Many people have trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or sleeping much longer than they used to.
  • Changes in appetite. Depression can lead to serious weight loss or gain when a person stops eating or uses food as a coping mechanism.
  • Lack of concentration. A person may be unable to focus during severe depression. It becomes harder to make decisions.
  • Loss of energy. People with depression may feel profound fatigue, think slowly or be unable to perform normal daily routines.
  • Lack of interest. People may lose interest in their usual activities or lose the capacity to experience pleasure.
  • Low self esteem. During periods of depression, people dwell on losses or failures and feel excessive guilt and helplessness. Thoughts like “I am a loser” or “the world is a terrible place” or “I don’t want to be alive” can take over.
  • Hopelessness. Depression can make a person feel that nothing good will ever happen. Suicidal thoughts often follow these kinds of negative thoughts—and need to be taken seriously.
  • Changes in movement. People with depression may look physically depleted or they may be agitated

If you have noticed changes like these in your friend, encourage him or her to see a doctor. Explain that you’ve noticed these changes and are concerned.

It’s a difficult conversation to have. One of the things that Stephen Ministers learn is how to have difficult conversations. You might find the following ideas from the Stephen Ministry training materials to be helpful.

  • Approach the conversation with your friend in love. Pray about it beforehand. Ask the Holy Spirit to give you the words to “speak the truth in love.” That means being gentle and humble in your approach, but also telling your friend the truth. Something is different.
  • Set aside some time for this conversation. Ideally a conversation like this takes place in person, face to face. It’s best to choose a private location. Invite your friend to get together to have a talk so they don’t feel ambushed.
  • Try to anticipate and minimize distractions. Turn the cell phone ringers and text alerts off, turn off the TV or laptop or iPad or gaming system. Close the window if dogs are barking, make sure children are engaged elsewhere. Don’t do this while driving. I can’t anticipate every possible distraction, but you get the idea!
  • Start with a positive statement to minimize defensiveness. For instance, “I’m so glad we are friends. You’ve been an important part of my life. It was so great when we did (fill in the blank) together.”
  • Bring up your concern. “Lately I’ve been wondering whether you’re struggling with something. You don’t seem to be your usual self. I’ve noticed you’ve been sleeping a lot and seem sad.”
  • Ideally you can follow this with a statement of genuine concern for your friend. “I care about you, and I’m wondering whether there’s anything I can do to help?”

Your friend may respond by blurting out some strong feelings about their recent experiences and struggles. If so, be ready to listen. And I mean really listen. Use eye contact, lean toward your friend, and wait patiently as they say what they’re thinking or feeling.

Realize that actively listening to your friend gives them a gift. He or she can express feelings, think through ideas, and process experiences. Depression isn’t easy for even health professionals to solve, but being heard and accepted may help.

  • Don’t try to fix it, but do ask clarifying questions.
  • Don’t give advice, but do repeat what you’ve heard back to your friend.
  • Don’t feel like you have to have any answers, but do ask your friend what he or she might do next.

If your friend doesn’t know what do next, encourage him or her to start by seeing a doctor. There are underlying conditions that can cause depression which should be ruled out.

Reassure your friend that you will keep what they’ve shared with you confidential. Tell your friend that you’re going to follow up with them in X number of days, to check in again.

Your friend may need professional care. That’s important to follow up on. But that doesn’t negate your role as a friend. You can make a difference. Find ways to encourage your friend. Let him or her know you will be there during the hard times.

Tell your friend that one day things will look more hopeful again. Remind your friend that God loves him or her. Pray for your friend. And one day your friend may wake up to find that the gray lens covering their world has lightened just a little. Just as winter eventually gives way to spring, little by little, day by day, hope may return. And you’ll be there until it does.

To hear what depression looks like to one who struggles with it read The Isolating Struggle: An Interview about Depression and to find out more about how you can help someone who struggles with depression read The Three- Legged Stool.