How to help a friend with depression

It’s estimated that one in five people in Australia will experience depression in their lifetime.  But for every person who goes through depression, there will be several who don’t (thank goodness!).  For someone who has never experienced the debilitating cloud of depression, it must be so difficult to understand how it effects those who do struggle with it.  It can be even harder to figure out how best to help a friend or loved one who is struggling under the weight of depression.

I’ve suffered from depression for years.  It comes and goes, but the Black Dog is always hovering in the background somewhere, waiting to swallow me up.  Luckily for me, I’ve got an awesome network of friends and family who are there to give me a hand when I’m feeling down.  They don’t always know exactly how to help, but they do the best they can.

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I thought that I’d write a post about helping out a friend or loved one with depression, based on the things that have worked for me.  Keep in mind that this isn’t a definitive ‘to do’ list, but it’s a good starting point.

Learn about depression

To begin with, it can be helpful to learn a bit about depression, particularly if you don’t know much at all about this illness.  Reading books and websites on the topic, watching documentaries or even talking to a healthcare professional about depression are all good places to begin.  If you know a bit about what your friend is dealing with, it can be easier to understand them and figure out how to help

Realise that depression is different for everyone

While it’s good to learn about depression, it’s really important to realise that depression doesn’t look the same for every person who suffers from it.  Some people become depressed after a particular event, some become depressed for no apparent reason.  Some will go through long periods of depression, others will suffer short bouts.  Symptoms vary from person to person, and the severity of symptoms will also vary.  Try talking to your friend to find out what depression looks like for them.  This will give you a clearer picture of what they are going through so that you can help them out.

Ask your friend how they would like to be helped.

When you first learn that someone you love is suffering, you might be at a loss to figure out what to do.  You might have a lot of ideas, or none at all.  I think that the best starting point is to ask your friend if they can think of anything specific that you could do to give them a hand.  Be prepared that they may have no idea of what help they need, and may simply say that they want you to be there for them.  But if they do ask for something specific, keep this in mind as you move forward.

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Give them a hand with the things they find the most difficult

Try to find out if there are any day-to-day tasks that are proving to be a challenge for your friend.  Perhaps they’re struggling to find the motivation to cook for themselves.  Maybe they need help getting to doctors appointments or researching therapists.  Maybe they’re just feeling crushed by the weight of work.  If you can get your friend to tell you what things are causing them the most anxiety, then you can try to find  a way to help.  Bring them a home-cooked meal, given them a lift to the doctors, offer to help clean their house or organize their calendar.  Try to alleviate those day-to-day stresses that can get in the way of recovery.

Don’t try to do everything for them.

One of the worst things that you can do for someone who is depressed is try to baby them and take over the running of their life.  Although your heart may be in the right place, you’re actually doing more harm than good.  It might seem obvious to you what your friend needs to do to get back on their feet, but it’s important that they work it out for themselves, with perhaps a bit of gentle nudging from you.  When I’m depressed, I find that planning and executing small tasks gives me a huge sense of achievement and helps to build my confidence.  When I manage to shop for groceries and cook dinner for myself I feel great.  When I make it through a whole shift at work without panicking, that’s awesome.  Trying to do everything for the person that’s suffering deprives them of the opportunity to prove to themselves that they are capable of looking after themselves.  It may also lead them to worry that you don’t trust them or that you think they’re a failure.  No matter how good your intentions may be, no matter how much you want to help, know when to step back and let your mate do things for themselves.

Don’t take it personally

I know first-hand how frustrating it can be when a friend regularly cancels on your plans, or doesn’t take your advice, or refuses to talk to you when you know they’re hurting.  It sucks, and it can leave you feeling angry and resentful.  If you have a friend who is depressed, try not to take it personally if they flake out when you’ve made plans or refuse to open up to you.  Most likely, it has nothing to do with you.  Your friend may find it difficult to socialise in public.  Getting out of bed may have been too difficult that day.  They may feel uncomfortable talking to you because they’re worried about bothering you.  Although it can be difficult, try to be compassionate and understand that your friend’s depression has nothing to do with you.

Remind them often of why you think they’re awesome

Your self-esteem takes a beating when you’re depressed.  When I’m at my lowest, I feel as though I’m totally worthless and utterly unloved.  I sometimes even think that the world would be better off without me.  If someone you love is depressed, this is the time when it’s most important for you to remind them why you adore them.  Tell them out aloud, write it in a card, make a video for them or bake a cake with the words ‘You’re amazing!” iced onto it.  Any tiny gesture that shows your friend that you love them will be appreciated.

Remember to take care of yourself

When you’re working hard to look after someone else, it can be easy to let self-care slide.  It is vital that you take time out for yourself and make sure that you’re going alright.  It’s tiring to care for someone, so you need to regularly check in with yourself to see if there’s anything you need.  Keep in touch with your friend’s family and other mates to find out if there are other people who can lend a hand when it’s needed so that you aren’t trying to do everything yourself.  Remember that no matter how much you adore your friend, the most important person for you to take care of is yourself.

Do you have any tips to add to this list?  If so, I’d love to hear them.

For further reading, check out this fantastic comic from Kinds of Blue.

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7 thoughts on “How to help a friend with depression

  1. Pingback: How I Overcame Depression In Two Days | Melanie's Life Online

  2. This is such great advice. I think people often too want to fix everything…sometimes over looking the simple things. Just having someone tweet hugs at me when I am depressed makes things seem so much better. And a lot of this advice is also really helpful for carers of people with mental illness. When I was last in hospital hubby most appreciated people dropping off meals and offering to take the girls to the park.

  3. Asking how they would like to be helped is a lovely one that I often forget.. when I ask too many questions and the other person stays quiet is when I start thinking maybe I should shut my trap. But asking.. that’s something so logical that honestly didn’t even occur to me..

    • It’s funny that sometimes the most obvious ideas are the hardest to think of. Most people will jump in and try to help out a loved one in the way that they would like to be helped themselves. While that’s awesome, and their heart is in the right place, they don’t always offer the kind of support that is needed. Sometimes all you need to do is ask what someone needs.

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