How to Help a Friend Struggling with Depression or an Eating Disorder
Written by Tiffany Dawn | September 16, 2015
When you see a friend drowning in an eating disorder, depression or addiction, what can you do to help?
As someone who has been on both sides of the story—struggling with an eating disorder, and then later helping others in recovery—here are a few things that have helped me show God’s love to friends who are struggling. Each situation is different, however, so spend lots of time in prayer and ask for advice from an adult you trust.
- If you notice something is wrong, you can ask your friend about it. Sometimes a friend will share her struggle with you; other times, you may notice something is wrong and wonder if you should say anything. Author and pastor Peter Haas talks about making “love deposits”—spending time with a person, letting them know you care. If you make regular “love deposits” into your friend’s life, then spend some time praying about what you’re noticing in your friend. When you feel the time is right, kindly and gently ask your friend about what you’re noticing. Use specific examples and open-ended questions. Here’s an example: “I’ve been noticing that… [include specific things you’ve observed, like: You seem sad and don’t really eat anything at lunch, OR you haven’t seemed yourself lately and have been spending a lot more time alone]. I want to let you know that I’m here for you if you ever want to talk. How are you doing?” If your friend doesn’t share with you, that’s okay. You can begin praying for her, and if you’re really worried, talk with an adult in your friend’s life, letting them know your concerns.
- Ask how you can help. If your friend shares her struggles with you, ask how you can be there for her. Each person will have a different answer. If someone is struggling with depression, there may be specific times of day or certain holidays that are especially difficult for her. It may be helpful for you to text her during those times. For another person, school might be really difficult and lonely, so having someone to eat lunch with may be helpful.
- Keep their confidence, but involve an adult. This is the most important piece of advice I can give. These struggles are very personal. Keep your friend’s confidence by not sharing her struggle with other people. There is an exception, however. It is essential to involve a trusted adult so your friend can get the help and wisdom she needs. Talk with your friend about this. Ask what adult your friend feels comfortable talking with (such as one of your parents, a teacher, pastor, doctor or counselor). Offer to go with your friend to talk with that adult about her struggle.
- Be their mirror. When I struggled with an eating disorder, the only thing I thought about was food. All. The. Time. For people struggling with something like depression or an eating disorder, that struggle often becomes all they can see, or even their identity. You can help your friend see who she really is—outside of the struggle. What things is she good at? What parts of her personality do you like? Talk about things other than the eating disorder; help your friend remember that life outside the struggle does exist!
- Remind them of their motivation to recover. One friend texted me while in rehab from alcoholism, saying she didn’t think she could recover. I spent some time praying for her and asking God what to say, and finally wrote back, “Just the fact that you’re texting me shows that there’s a small part of you that still really wants to recover. What is that part of you?” One of the most helpful things you can do for your friend is remind her of why she wants to recover. That motivation and hope can encourage your friend to keep fighting for freedom, even when it’s difficult.
- Be patient. Recovery takes time. It’s like learning how to walk; you don’t learn overnight, and it will involve a lot of mistakes and stumbling at first. Encourage your friend to have patience with herself. (You can read more about this here.) Also have patience with yourself. This is a confusing road to navigate. I’m constantly praying, “God, what should I say, if anything?” I’ve learned it’s more about listening, loving, praying for and being in the moment with your friend than it is about having the right thing to say.
- Set healthy boundaries for yourself. It’s easy to feel that your friend’s success or failure rests on you, but that’s not true. You can help your friend during recovery, but only God can heal hearts, and only your friend is responsible for letting God do the healing. I’ve had to learn that I can be in the moment with someone and pray for them, but I cannot carry their struggles. Only Jesus has shoulders strong enough for that load. A great way to keep yourself healthy is to confide in a trusted adult, and ask that adult to help you set boundaries in the relationship. Maybe one of your boundaries is that you only hang out with your friend a couple times a week instead of every day, or that you turn your phone off at night and are not available to talk then. Maybe it’s simply that you talk with your trusted adult regularly to process the things your friend is saying, and together give those things to God, instead of trying to carry them on your own shoulders. Do not let your friend’s struggle consume your life.
At the end of the day, we cannot fix anyone; only God can heal hearts. We are simply called to show God’s love to others.
I hope these tips (and a lot of prayer and wisdom from adults) help you show God’s love to your hurting friends.
Note: The information expressed in this article is not medical advice, nor it is professional counseling advice. Eating disorders, depression and addiction routinely require medical or professional advice. Don’t hesitate to seek those things out.