Van Gogh "Sorrowing Old Man" 1890
Van Gogh “Sorrowing Old Man” 1890

What can Jewish tradition teach us about helping people who are depressed?

REACH OUT – Make contact, either by phone or in person. There is a beautiful story in tractate Berakhot 5a-b of the Talmud about three rabbis. The first rabbi, Chiyya bar Abba, fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him, and asked him if he welcomed his suffering. Rabbi Chiyya said no. Then Rabbi Yochanan reached out his hand, took the sick rabbi’s hand, and raised him up.

Rabbi Yochanan fell sick. Rabbi Hanina, his teacher, went to see him. He asked the same question, and got the same answer. Then he took Rabbi Yochanan’s hand and raised him up. The text itself asks then, why couldn’t Rabbi Yochanan heal himself? It answers itself, saying, “The prisoner cannot free himself.”

Finally, Rabbi Eleazar fell ill. Rabbi Yochanan went to see him. He finds the rabbi lying in a dark room and crying. Rabbi Yochanan asks some questions about Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness. When Rabbi Eleazar says, “i am weeping because you are going to die someday.” Rabbi Yochanan says, “Yes, that’s very sad” and then they both cry for a while. Then Rabbi Yochanan says, “Do you welcome your suffering?” and Rabbi Eleazar says no, and Rabbi Yochanan takes his hand and helps Rabbi Eleazar up.

What can we learn from this? First of all, it is good to visit people who are sick, whether they are physically or mentally ill. We don’t know exactly what was wrong with Rabbi Chiyya bar Abba, but Rabbi Yochanan visited him, expressed his care, and helped him get better.

Second, we learn that people can’t heal themselves. Never tell a person with depression to “snap out of it.” Instead, ask how they are feeling, listen, and if you can “give them a hand,” literally or metaphorically, do so. Few of us can heal miraculously like Rabbis Yochanan and Hanina, but friendly contact can help.

The case of Rabbi Eleazar is particularly interesting. In his case, it’s clear that the illness is depression. So one thing we learn is that the ancient rabbis saw overwhelming sadness and “lying in a dark room” as a genuine illness. Secondly, Rabbi Yochanan treated Rabbi Eleazar’s sadness with respect. He didn’t say, “That’s silly, everyone dies sometime!” He agreed that it was sad, empathized with his student, and then helped him up.

OFFER COMFORT – In 1 Kings 19, the prophet Elijah hears that Queen Jezebel wants to kill him. Initially, he runs for his life, but after a day’s journey into the wilderness, he sinks down to the ground under a tree and says, “I just want to die.” Then he falls asleep. After he sleeps for a while, an angel comes to him and sets down food and water, saying only, “Get up and eat.” Elijah does so, then lies back down to sleep some more. The angel comes again, bringing more food and water, and says, “Get up and eat; the journey has been too much for you.” Elijah eats and drinks and feels stronger – he is able to travel ahead to Mt. Horeb, where he has an encounter with God.

The angel brings food and water to Elijah. He offers sympathy (“the journey has been too much for you”) but no advice or analysis. He doesn’t scold or tell Elijah to snap out of it. And he is not impatient when Elijah says nothing, just eats the food and goes back to sleep.

The angel is an example of one way to help a depressed friend. Don’t ask “what can I do?” because that requires thought and decision making. Simply bringing by a bit of comfort food, and delivering it without demanding much social interaction can be very helpful. A brief bit of human (or angel!) connection can be helpful. If you decide to bring food, bring it in a disposable dish. That isn’t very “green,” I know, but washing dishes takes energy. It also doesn’t have to be a whole meal. It can be a slice of cake or a bowl of soup to heat in the microwave.

The same is true for some small errand or chore. Don’t do housework (that may feel like criticism) but visit briefly and bring in the newspaper or the mail that has collected on the doorstep. All of these things say, “I care about you.”

The important thing is to keep it simple.

Finally, we have an example of the wrong thing to do for a depressed person:

DO NOT GIVE ADVICE – The Book of Job offers some powerful examples of “how not to help.” Job suffers one misfortune after another, and when his friends come to see him, they focus on their belief that he must have done something to bring his misfortune upon himself. He needs to repent his sins and get right with God! (Job 4-27)

When our friends are distressed, we are distressed. The desire to fix things can be almost unbearable, especially if we think we know a remedy. We want to point out the obvious and give advice. We ache to tell our friend to get some exercise, to eat right, to see a better therapist, to snap out of it!

Just as it was for Job’s “comforters,” this impulse is worse than useless. Many depressed individuals are already mired in a swamp of “shoulds” and “oughts,” and the depression has paralyzed them. Giving even the most well-meaning advice can make them feel worse. If they want help finding a therapist or getting some exercise, that’s different – but pushing unwanted “solutions” will be unproductive.

GET HELP: If someone in your community is depressed, tell your rabbi! He or she wants to know and will know how to contact the person.

Finally – this is very important! – If a person talks about suicide, take it seriously. Call a suicide hotline or their doctor. Never assume that talk about suicide is “kidding” or attention seeking. If there was anything at all to the talk, it’s important that they get help immediately. Even if later they say they didn’t mean it, you can’t take that chance. The principle of pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – demands that we take such talk at face value and react.

Being a good friend to a person with depression is a mitzvah. It is tempting to stay away from people who are in pain – pain is unpleasant, after all. But reaching out, checking in, offering food or simple help – those things can make a huge difference. Be a mensch!