Although meditation can be very helpful in relieving depression or in preventing depression from arising, the act of focusing inwards can actually heighten feelings of despair. I would suggest not trying to meditate when you are extremely depressed, and especially not at times that you are having any thoughts of self-harm.
It’s also best even if you are feeling mildly depressed that you try to find a teacher with whom you can work closely. By this I mean someone that you can have close to daily contact with, either by phone or email. Even when someone’s not depressed it can be challenging to learn new skills, and the depressive tendency to focus on what’s wrong can lead to feelings that the meditation isn’t working, even when it is. You may need an experienced coach to help you work with your frustration.
Although such opportunities are unfortunately very rare, an experienced meditation teacher who is on hand to give you step by step guidance can probably help you even when you are experiencing severe depression.
One woman recently wrote to me saying that she’d experienced profound anxiety and depression all her life, and that she’d recently tried meditating with the help of a CD. She went on to say, “I feel great when I have done about 20 minutes of meditation but it lasts maybe an hour or so then I feel just the same. Am I hopeless at meditation? Am I doing something wrong?”
This kind of response is not unusual when someone is depressed. A lifetime of mental habit is shifting, but only for an hour. Rather than focus on the positive (things are changing) she ends up homing in on the negative (it only lasts for an hour). This is where a teacher is indispensable, because without guidance the benefits of meditation can end up being ignored, while a positive is turned into a negative.
As one experienced meditator said, “Meditation while clinically depressed can result in intensification of feelings of despondency, hopelessness, and negativity generally. The metta practice is theoretically a good thing, but in practice it can be a nightmare if all you feel is self-hatred!”
I agree, and if meditation seems to be making things worse, then I would advise you to stop immediately.
However, I have worked with several extremely depressed students who have benefited from meditation when they have had constant guidance and feedback from an experienced teacher to make sure that they are using meditative techniques in a helpful way.