9 ways to help a friend through tough times
A teen shares what he learned while helping a friend through depression.
You may be reading this because you recently heard a good friend of yours is depressed, suicidal or going through a really tough time - and you have no clue what to do. That is exactly the situation I found myself in a while ago, and I was completely lost. What I write here isn’t professional advice or a go-to-guide, because I don’t claim to have had amazing success. I also don't claim to be an expert on the matter, and maybe what I say is a bit obvious. These are just the successes, failures and bits of advice given from one teen guy who wanted to help a troubled friend.
1. Be careful of first reactions
If you are reading this, there is a good chance you ALREADY know your friend is going through a really tough time. And so, you may have already made the same mistake I did. When I was first told, I felt bad that I didn’t already know, and asked “Could I have somehow caused or provoked this, or unknowingly said something insensitive?”. There are two things wrong with this:
- Although they are focused on the other person, they are selfish and imply the situation revolves around you.
- No matter how bad you feel about it, they feel worse.
Obviously try to avoid this response, but if it’s too late, the only thing you can really do is apologise and hope you can move forward.
2. Prepare for rejection
So you know that your friend is depressed/suicidal and you have a heart to help them. Great! Unfortunately, it isn’t easy. You are obviously not going to fix such a big problem overnight. And so, as you offer advice and encouragement, it may be rejected, denied, and thrown in your face. You will find a lot of the things I tell you may involve putting your friendship in jeopardy. Make sure you understand that, and if you want to help, prepare for it.
You might hurt because it seems to be all in vain or because you feel rejected by your friend - but you have to be able to take this for their sake. As Christians, we are called to model Christ in sacrificing what we have. For him it was his life, for you it might be your unproblematic relationship with your friend.
3. Help them stick with Jesus
Hopefully this friend of yours is a Christian, maybe not. In the case of a suicidal person, their physical life is not the only thing at risk. Depression is notorious for damaging a person's walk with Christ, and they may walk away from him. So you need to be careful. To correct someone, you sometimes need to rebuke them, but rebuking is hard to take at the best of times. So ask the person how their emotions have affected their relationship with God. Hopefully they will be honest. But if they aren’t, remember their eternal life is more important than this one, so do whatever you can to help them in their walk with God.
4. Only share their story if it's necessary
You will probably be asked not to tell anybody about your friend's situation, and yes that is the right thing to do in most cases. But you need to think VERY carefully of the 'why, who, what, and when' of telling someone else - if necessary.
Why: If you are telling anyone about the situation for a reason that isn’t going to benefit the sufferer, you’re doing it for the wrong reason. I wanted to tell my best mate what my friend was going through, simply because he was the one person I told everything. I needed to decide against that when I asked myself why I wanted to tell him.
Who: Obviously you would only tell a very select few people, if anybody. Only tell people who can help or offer advice and in the case of advice, aim for people you know who don’t know the person.
What: The sufferer's name is a detail you shouldn’t share lightly. I can think of 3 people I told of the situation. I told none of them the name of my friend, simply because I was only asking for advice. If it isn’t helping, don’t say it!
When: Think of people who you may need to tell in the future. Think of possible scenarios where you may need to tell someone if the situation escalates or changes.
Your friend obviously trusts that you will do the right thing, but what they want may not always be what is right and best for them. You need to do what is right.
5. Tread lightly
Be extremely careful what you say. This might seem like an obvious one, but being depressed could mean the person is less rational than usual, and more prone to taking something the wrong way. A problem I had to face was I am a guy and my friend is a girl. A tip for guys, girls need to feel heard and understood. The problem I faced in regard to this is I had to show I really cared, and was listening. I needed to not trivialise the situation by saying I knew what she was going through, when I really didn’t (not a problem that is exclusive to girls, it can happen to guys too). The fact is, their life is usually going to feel a lot worse than yours, so saying you know what they are going through will be reducing their situation, something they don’t want to hear.
6. Realise you may not be the right person
This is another tip for someone who’s friend is not the same sex as them. A lot of youth groups do single-gender bible studies for a reason, because guys are to encourage guys, and girls to encourage girls. Sure you can help them out, but in a lot of situations, you should point them to a youth group leader or other mature Christian of the same gender that can help them. You don’t want to end up the person they come to with all their problems - it may cause complications in the future.
7. Keep encouraging
Keep offering different pieces of positive reinforcement and encouragement, because depression affects people differently, and you don’t know what might have a large impact on them.I saw a massive change in my friend’s situation after I told her a quote from a movie, that I didn't expect to have any affect at all. Her reacting as positively as she did was a bit of a shock I must admit, but I wasn’t worried as long as it helped. However don't be disheartened by a lack of positive response. I've found, even if they don’t respond to your encouragement, they are happy to know you care enough to keep trying to help.
8. Let them breathe
Be careful that you aren’t going over the top. You have to realise that because you so much want them to be happy, you eventually become a pest. You’re their friend, not their counsellor. Space and friends are both probably things they need, considering the circumstances. You are a friend to them first and that is often something they need more than someone to work through their problems with. Alongside that, guys need to know that girls don’t want you to fix all their problems. Yes, to us the solution is most important, but often girls are more interested in being heard. Just listen. Don’t try to fix everything.
9. Give it to God
At the end of the day, you can’t fix everything. They have to make the decision to move forward, and in most cases they will already know many of the things you are trying to encourage them with. Just keep going and pray that God will help you have insight into the right things to say (and not say), but realise change will only come from God. It all comes back to God, so give it to him, and pray that his hand may be on the situation.
So that’s my experience. Not an amazing guide, but it’s just what I have learned. Learn from my successes and my mistakes. Philippians 2:3-4 does a good job at summing up these points:
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others".
Think of them above yourself, put them ahead of you, and think of how they may feel about what you say and do. Do it for them, not for you.
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