Want to Help a Friend Battling Depression?

By Liz Anoushka

You think or know for a fact that someone you care about is dealing with depression or has been diagnosed with clinical depression also known as MDD (Major Depressive Disorder). Perhaps you are an adult or much younger and this person could be anyone, a friend, stranger, colleague, neighbor, child, elderly person, anyone. It is important that you reach out to this person and help them or signpost them to someone or somewhere they could get proper or professional support to cope and recover in a healthy way.

As you contemplate helping, here are some tips to make it easier, safer and effective for you and the person you are concerned about.

Evaluate your own emotional and mental state

Depression can seem ‘contagious’, a few moments with a depressed person and you can be sure to feel low on energy during and afterwards. However, you being in low spirits doesn’t help your friend, child, spouse or other person that needs help. It’s important you ascertain whether or not you have personal issues you’re struggling with, deal with them and when you feel emotionally and mentally balanced, then can you be in a better position to share that positive energy with them.

A depressed person is overwhelmed enough already and you showing up with dampened moods won’t persuade them to think more positively nor have hope. If you think the world is so much better and colourful than they believe it to be, then when you interact with them, make sure your voice is full of life and your outlook consistent with the positivity you’re encouraging.

Educate yourself

You need facts if you are to engage a depressed person more effectively. There is what they ‘know’ to be true and what the truth or reality really are. Echoing tired cliches, generalised and random comments tends to backfire. The person may cave back into their depression, start to shut you out, or be convinced that no one really understands and that self-harm or harming others might be a more attractive alternative.

Do your research online and elsewhere on depression, causation, signs and symptoms, effects, assessment and management strategies, medication, therapy and treatment, helplines and important contact information, anything you could get your hands on. Talk to friends and professional counselors or doctors without necessarily disclosing the person’s identity and whatever advice or information they will give you will surely come in handy.

Be trustworthy

Having depression is ugly enough, you shouldn’t make it worse by gossiping to whoever cares to listen about what your friend confided in you about. Don’t make fun of the situation nor trivialise it and avoid volunteering information about your friend’s situation to people who have no business knowing what’s happening.

Depending on which part of the world you’re in, stigma remains real. We don’t want to admit we are struggling because we are afraid that those around us who think we have perfect lives will realise our world is falling apart and think of us to be weak and vulnerable. Show yourself to be discreet, dependable, understanding, compassionate, approachable, and know what to share, how to share it and whom else to share it with should you need to seek expert or third party intervention.

They are a unique individual not “everybody else”

Perhaps you know of hundreds of other people dealing with the same condition, it doesn’t matter. Whether or not you think the cause for your friend’s depression is sensible or not, also doesn’t matter. Depression has serious effects on health, productivity at work, quality of life, can lead to other illnesses or complicate pre-existing medical conditions, make a person more aggressive or lead to suicide.

You are trying to get your friend to open up and accept help so it is best you stay present, focus on them as an individual and their situation as unique without giving into the temptation to compare it with other people’s stories, trivialise or dismiss the person’s reasons. Offer advice that shows you’ve been listening attentively, you’re genuinely interested, and you honestly understand.

Watch your words, how and when you say them

Silence is best when you don’t know the right thing to say. Hearing the person speak about their situation while you impatiently wait for your turn to say all the things on your mind is insensitive and you might end up saying something ‘smart’ but totally irrelevant, patronising, dismissive, empty and unhelpful.

Listen attentitively because you want to understand and to connect. Give them as much time as they need to speak without unnecessary interruptions. Pick words guided by your research and the information they share with you. Ask questions when you haven’t understood and do your best to encourage them to share as much as possible. Avoid telling them you understand when you can’t relate just because you think it might trick them into feeling better.

Steer clear of phrases such as, “you’re not the only one”, “everyone goes through that”, “be thankful, others have experienced worse”, “it’s nothing, it’s just in your head”, “you’re just overreacting”, “why are you so negative, just think positive thoughts”, “are you honestly worried over something so small? All along I thought it was something pretty serious”, “give it time, it will go away on its own”, “it’s just a phase, you wait and see.” Instead say something thoughtful and only if you’re sure it will help the person and the situation. If in doubt, please be silent, sometimes the person doesn’t really need you to say something in the moment, just knowing you are there, listening and caring can be enough.

Keep your hands to yourself

When a person is depressed, it’s easy to think that touching them or being physically close and alone with them is a perfect way of showing you care. You don’t want to be misunderstood as someone that’s just out to take advantage of the situation and exploit your friend’s vulnerability.

The person is clearly not in their best state mentally and emotionally so their judgment may be easily swayed and should they consent to physical touch, it might be the depression speaking. Unless they are falling or at risk of imminent self-harm, you have no need to touch them. Sit close but with reasonable distance between each other to avoid any compromising situations should someone else walk in.

Also ask if they are okay with you holding their hand gently, would they mind if you embraced them to calm them down while they sob, do they prefer you sit or stand a little way off from them, are they comfortable being touched on the shoulder, do they prefer zero physical contact? Be ready to respect their preferences and don’t take offence should they refuse any form of contact.

Be creative with fun and constructive ideas for distraction

Helping your friend cope better with their depression should not be limited to soft conversations and private interactions or meetings. These can be good at the start but you need to throw in some fun activities, play lively music or catch a funny movie with themes that are more positive.

Get the person to come out of the “shadows” by re-introducing the “outside world” with outdoor activities and gatherings. Isolation can complicate depression just as much as focusing every conversation on depression.

Ask the person if they would like to talk about something else, do something else, go somewhere else while reminding them that should they need to talk about something, the doors are still open. Help them get immersed in the fun activities and understand they might need some time to fully embrace a world they have been quickly or slowly slipping away from.

Give the person space, hang out with other people

It can happen that your friend becomes too comfortable around you or grows to be overly dependent on you for emotional and other support. Every once in a while go out with other people and stay plugged into your usual community.

A depressed person may prefer isolation and engaging them necessitates a level of seclusion for privacy. This can make you feel isolated from your other friends and social activities. It’s imperative thus for you to create a balance between the time you spend helping your friend and you staying aligned with your daily schedule and social networks. Giving the person space will also give them room to reflect on the conversations you have and will challenge them positively to take more responsibility for their condition.

Protect yourself

Expect to feel sad, depressed, worn out, or even confused after spending some time with a depressed person. Yes, another person’s depression can easily rub off on you and it helps that you be aware and decide what to do should it happen.

Also, compassionately but firmly set boundaries early on and agree very clearly what your friend may expect and what the limits are. While a depressed person might not intentionally be manipulative, you need to stay mindful of any financial assistance you offer and subtle forms of emotional manipulation. Being extremely close to someone when they are vulnerable can be fertile ground for unwise decisions and compromising behaviour you both might regret.

If it’s a child, woman, or elderly person then you want to involve other people, interact with the consent of a parent or guardian, keep doors open and use open spaces, anything that will protect you should allegations of “abuse and harm” come up sooner or later. You shouldn’t try to engage a depressed person should they be under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Offering alcohol, drugs and anything that feeds their depression is counterproductive. The situations are numerous and you must always use the best of your judgement.

Keep an open-mind and be ready to detach at some point

Helping a person cope with depression can naturally draw you close and make you unprepared for when you will have to part ways especially after they get better or need to travel far away for professional and medical treatment. You may as well develop strong trust and feel betrayed when they fail to keep their promise “to try” and instead fall deeper into their depression or commit suicide.

You need to understand that you are here to help and do the best you can whether they recover or not. You should be ready to remain understanding and respectful of their decisions and to realise you’re not responsible for their condition should they choose to take an undesired path. Feelings of guilt, helplessness, and failure can creep in and cripple you when the person you care about deteriorates but there’s only much you can do, could do and have done.

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