Some days I could almost—almost, I say—envy those people who came down with the flu this winter. And I could almost—almost, I say—offer to exchange troubles with them if that were possible, and if they were willing to make the trade.
With the flu, a person has measurable symptoms such as a fever and a cough. With anxiety and depression, few if any symptoms can be perceived from outside. When one has the fever and cough of the flu, other people are willing to believe what they say about aches and weariness. When one has anxiety and depression, other people are more likely to say, “It’s all in your head,” meaning, “Nothing is really wrong with you.” A few people might think of the flu virus as imaginary and the flu as something that can be conquered by positive thinking. Many more treat anxiety and depression as imaginary and as things that can be conquered by positive thinking.
When someone calls in with the flu, the advice given is usually gentle, kind, and considerate: “Take care of yourself, get plenty of rest, drink lots of fluids, and don’t push yourself—don’t try to come back until you are sure you are better.” With anxiety and depression, the advice is usually less helpful: “Don’t mope; don’t feel sorry for yourself; think about other people and their problems; get active and keep yourself busy and your problems won’t seem so big.” This advice shows a fundamental misunderstanding of what anxiety and depression are doing to a person. It is as if a well-meaning person walked up to a paralyzed man lying on a stretcher and said, “Get up and take a walk—it’ll make you feel better.” Only our Lord Jesus Christ was able to cure paralysis by telling people to get up and walk. The rest of us can only make that victim feel worse by encouraging him to do exactly what he wants to do and cannot do. The person battling anxiety and depression is equally vulnerable. He or she wants to cheer up, wants to be active doing useful things, and wants to feel better. Those are exactly the things he or she cannot do. Encouraging such a response to anxiety and depression is like rubbing salt into a wound.
How can you support a person battling anxiety and depression? Let them know that you care. Be available for them, even if they do not seem to want anything from you. Avoid advice about how to handle their problems, unless you are a qualified counselor or physician. Do not criticize them for taking medication or seeking counseling to help with their problems—don’t criticize, even if you are convinced in your own mind that such medicines and counseling services are a fraud and a rip-off. Above all, avoid blaming them even indirectly for their problems. Don’t tell them that their fears and their sorrows are signs that they do not believe God’s promises. Pray for them, wish them peace and calm, and keep on loving them—even when their struggles and their means of coping with those struggles make them seem unlovable.
The American landscape has become friendlier towards people who have limited mobility. It has become kinder towards people who have limited intelligence. Insults are still spoken, and sometimes people resist the facilities that accommodate people with various challenges. We still have a long way to go toward accepting and helping those with emotional challenges. That journey begins with genuine kindness and compassion. J.