Mood Social Science

How to help a friend dealing with depression

Posted on 9/03/19

Fun, vibrancy, joy, playfulness, warmth… the ‘black dog’ of depression can snatch away some of your friends’ greatest qualities. The reasons, in many instances, that you developed a bond in the first place.

It can be heartbreaking to watch someone you love battle with this mental illness. It’s also not a rare experience – depression is the biggest cause of disability worldwide, thought to affect 300 million people, according to the World Health Organization.

You’re upset for them as you’re you’re watching them trying to live their life with an invisible weight tugging at their chest - but also, and let’s be real here, for yourself.

‘When depression takes hold it can feel like you are a different person,’ says psychologist Jessamy Hibberd. ‘It makes someone think, feel and view the world differently.’ 

And when your buddy’s mind is magnifying their problems (for the uninitiated, the role of brain regions responsible for threat detection are amplified during depression, while those that work to moderate and fact-check the level of threat lose influence), they’re probably not going to be able to provide that patient listening ear, dole out smart dating advice, or have you in fits of laughter as you swap stories over a bottle of blush-pale rosé on a Friday night.

That’s hard - so know that feeling this way doesn’t make you selfish. Don’t fight the feelings; acknowledging and accepting them will enable you to more effectively show up for your struggling friend and be a much-needed source of positivity in their lives.

Not sure where to start? Jessamy has some suggestions:

1/ Get some face time

Like actual IRL face time. ‘Reach out in a concrete way, rather than saying: “I’m here whenever you’re ready to meet up”. Turn it into some options - e.g. can I come over this evening and bring food? Or shall we meet for a coffee somewhere in your neighbourhood? 

2/ Don’t minimize their pain

‘Phrases like “pull yourself together” or “there are far worse off people in the world” will only leave your friend feeling bad about themselves; something that you’re already a master at doing when you’re depressed. Instead comfort them, listen, ask if there’s anything you can do.’

3/ Ask about suicide

Scary one here - but it’s really important that you get a sense of how serious their case is. ‘You could ask “Have you been thinking of harming yourself in any way?” or “Have you had any suicidal thoughts?” and, crucially, “Have you ever thought about acting on them?”,’ suggests Jessamy.

If they answer ‘yes,’ seek back-up from other friends, family and a mental health professional. Knowledge is power when it comes to intervening, so don’t be afraid to seek it out.

4/ Remind them that they are more than this illness

‘When someone is experiencing depression, it can feel as though it’s taken over their whole identity - which can make maintaining hope for recovery extremely difficult. The most important thing to show your friend is that depression isn’t who they are.’

by Claudia Canavan & Roisín Dervish-O’Kane, @allupinyourfeelings