Help for Depression: How Do You Know if You’re Drowning?

“Mental pain is less dramatic than physical pain, but it is more common and also more hard to bear. The frequent attempt to conceal mental pain increases the burden: it is easier to say, ‘My tooth is aching’ than to say ‘My heart is broken.’”

– C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain

By Sharon Hersh

As a therapist, the sentence I have heard more in the last few weeks than any other is, “I’m just so over everything.” I suspect the frustration and tension we are all feeling is normal. We anxiously wait for the virus curve to flatten. We scoff at commercials that want us to feel warm and fuzzy about “being in this together.” We feel alone in our worries about our jobs, finances, elderly parents, and figuring out what’s for dinner. But when we start kicking gas pumps, we need to do some self-reflection about how deeply this season may be affecting our mental health.

I called a friend and told her about my frustration, and then we talked through all the things I am really angry, afraid, and stressed about. Our connection eased the burden, and I assured her I would call her if I felt tempted to take the cares of these tricky times out on inanimate objects.

My regression to acting like a teenage drama queen was a sign that my internal “stress container” was overflowing, and it was cue that I needed support. Calling my friend was a sign that I am steady enough to recognize unhealthy behaviors and seek connection in the midst of my angst. I am also painfully aware there have been times in my life when I’ve been drowning in anger, anxiety, and shame and I have not called out for any life-preserving help – risking my physical, mental, spiritual, and relational health.

How Do You Know if You’re Drowning?

There are many good depression/anxiety assessments online. Here are some questions that you might not find online but are indicators that you may be going under.

  1. Have you gone from drinking one glass of wine a week to drinking every night to “take off the edge?” (According to the American Medical Association, if you drink more than 2 glasses of wine more than 3 days a week, you are abusing alcohol.)
  2. Do you think in all or nothing terms? For example, “Life will never be normal;” “No one understands what I’m going through;” “Everyone is too busy to care about me;” “God is a bunch of nonsense;” “Nothing I pray about matters;” “I can’t stand to be in this marriage one more day;” “There is nothing I like about my family.”
  3. Do you find yourself muttering to yourself about a tense conversation, a cultural issue, or a life problem or do you toss and turn in restless sleeplessness, rehearsing these same things again and again?
  4. Are you obsessed with the election, certain influencers on Twitter, or how a neighbor is responding to the pandemic while avoiding your daily responsibilities?
  5. Do you relax by looking at social media and then get into debates with people you don’t know about issues that will not be resolved on Instagram?[i]
  6. Are you more annoyed or irritated than the situation merits (think kicking a gas pump)?
  7. Are you consumed with fear and shut down from seeing family, talking to friends, or enjoying your favorite snack with a good movie?
  8. Do you believe our world, your marriage, your children, or your own spiritual life is hopeless?
  9. Do you live with a “whatever” attitude – not caring about what you eat, drink, if you exercise, if you sleep all day or don’t sleep at all, if you pray, or if you stay connected to friends and activities you have cared about?
  10. Are you overwhelmed with guilt about your anxiety, anger, and cares during this time? In other words, is a lot of your internal dialogue filled with, “I should be happy;” “I shouldn’t care about this so much;” “I need to pray more;” “I have let everyone down?”
  11. Do you consume hours of the news and read very little encouraging, inspiring, or intriguing books or literature?

Have you thought you and everyone else would be better off if you were dead?

If you answered yes to more than one of these questions, you deserve the gift of allowing someone else to know you’re at risk for drowning and need a life preserver. 

For many of us, the pandemic is revealing our need for others. “The pain of . . . life and the futility of trying to make life work is God’s grace in letting us know that things are not how they’re supposed to be (in or outside of us) . . . God does not allow us to be comfortable in our alienation from him and one another . . . He allows desperation in the hope that we will find our way back to him and to one another.”[ii]

The Way Back

Often the best place to start when we are drowning in depression and anxiety is with a therapist. I don’t write that because I am one. I write that because I know myself – my pride and shame about struggling has often compelled me to a safe, confidential place to begin to process my life. How do you find a good therapist?

  1. Start by asking trusted friends or caregivers who they recommend?
  2. Call potential therapists and ask how they treat depression and anxiety. Ask how they integrate faith into the process. If you don’t feel like you can make these calls, ask a friend to call and give you the information.
  3. Choose someone who is located near where you live. It’s easier to quit therapy if you need to make a long drive to get there.
  4. Look for someone on your insurance, but if you don’t find a match, ask the therapist of your choice if they will offer a sliding scale. During this pandemic most therapists are willing to work with people in financial distress.
  5. If you don’t feel comfortable with an in-person visit, ask if the therapist does telehealth.
  6. Begin speaking this statement over your reluctance to ask for help: “I am willing to feel uncomfortable in order to be physically, mentally, spiritually, and relationally healthy.”
  7. Before you go to your first appointment, write down all the ways you feel like you are drowning in depression and anxiety.
  8. Commit to seeing a therapist for four sessions in order to begin to establish trust and a rhythm of support.

2020 has certainly thrown most of us into an unsteady state. We don’t have to suffer in all the uncertainties and turmoil alone. When we suffer alone, the enemy of our souls wins. When we courageously allow someone to be with us – face to face, soul to soul – we are living in harmony with God who came to be with us; we are honoring our own stories; and we are daring to hope that darkness does not win.

Don’t drown. Make a phone call on behalf of your worn and weary heart. Trust in a process that says: “This is the Story in which you have found yourself. Here is how it got started. Here is where it went wrong. Here is what will happen next. Now this – this is the role you’ve been given. If you want to fulfill your destiny, this is what you must do. These are our cues.”[iii]

These days of the pandemic can point us to the Way back, unearth further changes in us, shake us out of complacency, stretch and challenge us, and surprise us with not only the wild goodness of God but the wonder of helping companionship.

About the Author

Sharon Hersh is a licensed professional counselor, an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs, a sought-after speaker, and the author of several books. Her most recent book is Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another (NavPress, 2020). Her other books include the acclaimed The Last Addiction: Why Self Help Is Not Enough, the popular Bravehearts: Unlocking the Courage to Love With Abandon, and the award-winning Mothering Without Guilt.

[i] Multiple studies have linked social media consumption with depression and anxiety.

[ii] Hersh, Sharon. Belonging: Finding the Way Back to One Another, Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2020, p. 95.

[iii] Ibid., quoted John Eldredge, “The Story You Fell Into,” Ransomed Heart, accessed November 12, 2019, p. 107.