It shouldn’t be a stretch to imagine: Let’s say you have a friend dealing with depression. They’re deep in their shell, maybe they’re on an anti-depressant and they’re seeing a doctor but they’re not really making a lot of progress. What could you possibly do to help make things better in that situation?
There’s actually quite a bit to be done, and it starts with a little extra education.
1. Get Educated
While we’re getting much more educated as a society about anxiety and depression, there’s still a long way to go before we understand many of the tricks our brains play on us. For instance, many people will have a fear response to oncoming traffic, while some might actually smile as it advances on them, without knowing why. While the brain, depression and anxiety are becoming more understood, there are still plenty of mysteries left to be solved.
The good news is you don’t need to bore yourself half to death getting a degree in neuroscience to understand and relate to a little of what your friend is going through. In 5 Big Basics to Deal With Depression, I linked to a few different resources. You just need a little basic knowledge to avoid saying something potentially harmful when you really mean well, and you’ll find it becomes easier and easier to relate to your friend as you gain information on why they might be behaving a certain way or need a more specific kind of communication. How do you start that communication? Well…
2. Ask Questions
Depression is a huge, all-encompassing condition. It’s very different things for different people, and you’re going to need all the information you can get if you hope to help and relate to your friend. Asking questions is perhaps the most important thing you can do outside of simply offering your help, and it’s going to get you the most traction in helping guide your buddy to the other side of this thing. Your friend might feel as though they’re finally coming out of their depression, or they could be so deeply entrenched that they’re entertaining thoughts of suicide, and you have no way of knowing without asking these sometimes tough questions.
Once you’ve opened the dialogue, consider these questions:
- How long have you felt this way?
- Do you have suicidal thoughts?
- Is there anything that might have triggered these feelings?
- Have you made any dietary changes lately?
- Have you had your thyroid checked?
- Are you making sure to take in Vitamin D?
- Are you talking openly about your feelings?
Once you’ve asked some questions and feel you’re a little better equipped to deal with the breadth of depression, it’s time to have further discussion.
3. Help Them Learn
Depression saps a person of much of their energy and motivation to do anything; That can include researching their own illness. You friend may not know that their depression could be triggered by something physical, and they could be ignoring warning signs. They’re probably lost and confused trying to figure things out on their own, and get frustrated when nothing seems to offer relief. Help them by asking more questions and finding the answers alongside them. Urge them to look into depression, read articles and blogs or forums where others can post their experiences. I found reading about others' experiences helped a lot, and not in the 'It gets worse' way, but because it just made me feel a little less 'crazy' and alone.
4. Talk About It
Nothing will help as much as talking about it. Give them the chance to talk, probe with your questions and lay out both your stressors for some good old-fashioned venting. Stress and depression go hand-in-hand, and there’s no getting around stress in today’s environments.
Your biggest ‘job’ as the friend of a sufferer is to be there to talk about these stresses and help them figure out how they’re going to reduce them as much as possible. There’s bound to be something to delve into. If they work, that’s doubtlessly a source of stress, maybe their relationships are suffering or they’re having trouble communicating with family. So much can be going on, it’s important to lay it all out and go from there in learning how to cope. I personally tend to pretend everything's fine and put on a smile because I see myself as a burden. They could be doing the same so, again, it's about asking questions, coaxing them gently to talk about their depression, their stresses and life in general. Make sure they know they're not a burden on you, that you genuinely want to talk to them and help them with this fight.
5. Help Them Find Support
There's a lot of great support out there, but it's not necessarily easy to find or the person you're trying to help may not have looked for themselves quite yet. They might be embarrassed to speak out, but reinforce that they shouldn't be - show them some stories of other sufferers relating their experiences, some blog posts and link to a couple of resources. If they're really struggling and want an anonymous means of speaking their mind, suggest they make what's called a 'throwaway' account on Reddit requiring no personal information on their part. They can post to r/Depression about their depression and find thousands of others willing to listen, who can relate and help add to the support you're already offering from an experienced point of view. There's no measure of how much experience there is to draw from out there, it's just a matter of tapping into it in a safe and understanding environment.
6. Build Them Up
It goes without saying that you should praise your loved ones, but it goes beyond just showing that you appreciate them. Point out their highs - really focus on positive aspects of their character and actions, reinforce them by offering examples of their strength. You probably can't imagine what they're going through or the strength needed to deal with depression's symptoms on a day to day basis -- tell them that. Be honest that you know they're walking through a personal hell, and that takes such willpower to survive. By opening up and accepting your efforts to aid them, they're placing themselves in a vulnerable position that takes bravery and trust to overcome. That's huge.
Just make sure to be genuine with your compliments. That's a given for most situations, but generally people can be more self-aware when they're depressed, and because they tend towards the negative, they're likely to see through false compliments like 'You look nice' if they know they haven't necessarily been taking care of themselves, or a blind 'You can do it!' in the face of their overwhelming upset.
7. Listen And Laugh
Let's be honest - your friend is suffering and your interactions with them aren't all going to be perfect, pretty, healing moments of clarity. It might be rough at times, and they're not always going to open up or even be willing to talk, but its important to make the effort and let them know you're truly there for them. Consistency is key, show them that you're not going anywhere and you'll continue to be willing to listen, even when they aren't necessarily willing to talk. You don't need to bother them if they don't want to, but make sure to encourage it and extend the offer. Little questions are helpful again here.
Most importantly when you're listening, laugh. Maybe take in a comedy special on Netflix, make a few cracks or eye roll-worthy comments, but think on the lighter side of what can feel like an infinite sadness. It's a lot easier than it seems if you just let yourself go and remember that mental health doesn't always have to be a buttoned-down topic. It's messy, like life and, like life, it can be ridiculous. Everybody needs to be gauged individually, but don't fall into the trap of being overly politically correct when it comes to your dialogue on depression. You don't want to accidentally say something harmful, but you also want to avoid a tone that's overly serious and, to be blunt, just depressing.
Overall, learn about what you're dealing with and make sure to be there for them if they should need you (they do), because having a good support system is key to seeing the other side of depression.