What are some ways to support friends who are experiencing depression?
Hello, dear one. This is a really important question. There is a huge chance that every single person who will read this has at least one friend who is experiencing or has experienced depression. Even though a huge number of people experience depression and other mental illnesses, we continue to be stigmatized in our culture and communities. We can be seen as weak, violent, unpredictable, incapable, dishonest and lazy, among other things. We know that we are viewed this way by many people, which causes shame, embarrassment, and silence. It is so important to treat people experiencing depression with love and care. It’s also important to understand that managing depression can sometimes be a full time job, one that is exhausting. Empathy and understanding is key!
Your friend is going through something very difficult and it can be really useful to try to hold them in unconditional positive regard, meaning that you accept and support them as a person no matter what. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t responsible for any ways that they hurt you or other people, just that you’re able to isolate your friend’s behavior from who they actually are. I know from personal experience that this can be hard, and unconditional positive regard (UPR) is a tool and concept that originated in therapy and counseling, so it’s usually mentioned in regards to professional relationships. I don’t necessarily believe that you have to hold all of your personal relationships in UPR if you don’t want to or can’t. If a relationship in your life is too hard to maintain or affects your life negatively, I don’t believe that you have an obligation to hold that person in UPR and keep them in your life. However, if your friend with depression is a person you want to keep in your life, UPR can be a useful concept. Remember that they are not being self-indulgent and they are not making things up. Try to see the ways that people cope with depression in an often traumatizing world as valid, even if they are not the ways you would choose to cope. Try to remove judgement.
It’s also important to remember there are no absolutes because all people experience depression differently and need and want different kinds of support. I will be writing this from my own experience of depression. That said, here’s a list of general guidelines that could help you support friends experiencing depression, and they work for lots of other challenges as well:
- treat it like strep throat
- check in with them often
- don’t ignore it
- listen and don’t give advice unless they ask
1. Treat it like strep throat. If your friend had to cancel your weekly Twilight series viewing because they have strep throat, would you be angry with them? If you invited a friend to your birthday party and they said they’d try to make it but it might be hard for them because they have strep throat, would you be hurt? Nope! You would say, “I’m so sorry! Let me know if you need anything!” and then you’d text them the next day to see if they were feeling any better, because you are an incredible friend! Depression is often accompanied by lots of physical symptoms that can interrupt daily life, including fatigue and low energy, change of sleep patterns, appetite changes, and even joint and muscle pain. All these symptoms can be accompanied by repetitive thoughts or rumination, anxiety, irritability, insecurity, and intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness, to name just a few. When you’re experiencing some or all of these things, it can make social interaction really hard or painful. So, if a friend discloses to you that they are struggling with depression and you see them starting to retreat a little or a lot, try not to take it personally, support them, and be understanding.
2. Check in with them often. Send them texts or messages throughout the week. It doesn’t have to be anything profound. It might actually be better if it’s not. If you send them the most incredible text they’ve ever received about how much you love them, they’re going to feel pressure to reciprocate with an equally profound and loving text, and you’re probably going to want them to, which is natural. Just keep it simple. “Hey, I’m thinking about you! How are you?” If you do want to send them long and beautiful sonnets of love and friendship, make it clear to them that you don’t expect that level of reciprocation. Maybe writing sonnets of their own in response will be helpful! But make sure they don’t feel obligated, because this is not about you. Make it an intentional practice to find out how your friend is doing or tell them that you love them and are thinking about them at least weekly. And invite them to your shit! Don’t take it personally if they never come and don’t put pressure on them, but keep inviting them. Maybe you’ll get them on the day they feel able to go out. Insecurity and thoughts like, “No one cares about me. No one loves me. Everyone is annoyed by me. I’m a burden to my loved ones,” Can be a huge part of depression. Nip that shit in your friend’s bud by proving to them that it’s not true, by proving to them that you’re there.
3. Don’t ignore it. A few years ago, a therapist wanted me to take antidepressants for the first time. I was scared and I told one of my friends. They promptly changed the subject and never brought it up again. You probably know this, but do. not. do. this. I will never speak to that friend about something that personal again. I felt confirmed in my thoughts that, “No one wants to hear about this, it’s too personal. It’s awkward to talk about.” And it’s even made it harder to confide in people who I know won’t ignore it because that fear is often in the back of my mind. Recognize that it can be really scary for people experiencing depression to confide in friends, and respond accordingly and in a way that acknowledges and respects their bravery.
4. Listen. Really listen. This is probably the most crucial way to support someone going through depression, or any kind of hardship. It can be hard to really listen when someone is sharing something personal and vulnerable. It can feel uncomfortable because you’re not sure what you’re going to say when they finish talking, so you start thinking about what to say and then you’ve totally stopped listening and started focusing on yourself. I’m sure this comes from a place of truly wanting to support your friend and realizing that you don’t know how, but try to remember that just listening is supporting your friend! You don’t have to provide profound insights on life! Take that pressure off yourself by doing these things:
- Stop thinking about yourself and try to really listen, both to your friends’ words and body language. Stop trying to mentally prepare what you’re going to say. Just relax!
- Encourage your friend to continue and show them you’re listening periodically with simple verbal signs like “yeah” or “uh huh.” (You may be like, “um…DUH,” but this is important!)
- Do not interrupt your friend or change the subject to yourself in any way, even if you think you are helping. Ask questions that clarify what your friend is saying, or summarize or rephrase what you heard. This is crucial – it shows your friend that you are really listening. Do this only after they have finished a thought or point.
- Only when they’ve completely finished speaking should you respond, and just be as open and honest as possible. Your response can be as simple as, “That is so hard and I’m so sorry,” or “What can I do to help and support you?” If you’ve followed the steps above you have already helped and supported your friend by being a good listener.
This is called active listening, and it makes people feel heard. Feeling heard is what your friend needs. It’s the whole reason they are talking to you. They aren’t expecting profound insight, they just need what they are going through to be witnessed and treated with care. I’ll provide a small example. This fake conversation is obviously kind of robotic and not indicative of the natural ~flow~ of a conversation between close friends, but hopefully it helps you see what this whole active listening thing is all about.
Friend: I’ve been struggling with depression a lot these past few weeks.
You: What does depression look or feel like for you? [clarifying question]
Friend: It feels like I have no energy most of the time. It’s really hard for me to get out of bed and I feel really unmotivated to do things or see people. And I feel really insecure all the time.
You: What do you feel insecure about? [clarifying question]
Friend: I feel like no one I love really loves me as much as I love them. No one seems to care about me, no one wants to make plans with me. I think I’m just annoying to everyone I love.
[This is where you will want to say, “That’s not true! Everyone loves you!” Do NOT do that. You may think this is what your friend needs to hear, but it’s just invalidating what they’re feeling. You can express this sentiment in a different way in your response to your friend when they’ve finished sharing.]
You: What I’m hearing is that you’re insecure about how important you are to your friends. Is that true? [summary/rephrasing of what your friend said]
Friend: Exactly! It makes me feel really sad.
You: I’m so sorry you’re feeling that way. It surprises me because I see how much our friends love you, but I can also see how you feel that way if no one is reaching out to you. Is there anything I can do to help?
This brings us to “don’t give advice unless they ask!” This might be the point in the conversation where you’ll want to say, “Here’s what helps me when I’m in this place! blah blah me me blah blah me me me!” Don’t do it! Just don’t even freaking do it. You are not talking to yourself! You are talking to someone else whose experience is very different from yours. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to a friend about how I’m doing, and it gets switched around into a conversation about how my friend manages depression and how I should try this or that and I’m nodding along but really thinking, “Uh…did I ask?” I’m genuinely interested in hearing that information when we’re talking about you! But not when I was trying to talk about my experience. And I find most suggestions offered this way to be really unhelpful, either because they’re things I’ve already tried or things I don’t enjoy doing or things I’m uninterested in trying. I have a few friends that I know experience depression in the same ways I do or whose outlooks on life are really similar to mine, and those are the friends I go to for advice. If you are that someone in your friend’s life, they’ll ask you if and when they need advice. If they don’t ask, just listen. It also makes me feel like I’m someone who needs to be “fixed” or changed, and that it’s not okay to be feeling the way I feel and that I need to do lots of things to try to feel differently.
This is really just about being conscious of when you are trying to change the subject back to yourself because you feel uncomfortable or because you can only see your friend’s situation through your own lens. Sometimes you really do feel like you have important nuggets of advice that can help your friend. If this is the case, ask your friend if they’d like to hear them before you just launch in. Say something like, “This reminds me of something I went through recently. Something helped me that might help you! Would you like to hear about it?” They probably will! And asking this way makes it clear that you are still on the subject of what your friend is experiencing, this is just a detour that’s designed to give your friend some new tools. You can also just straight up ask what kind of friend your friend needs right now. A friend was once talking to me about something really hard they were going through, and it was something I had loooooots of opinions and feelings about. I really didn’t know what they needed and I also needed some direction, so I asked. “What kind of friend do you need me to be right now? Do you just need me to listen or do you want advice?” They were able to tell me they just wanted me to listen, and when they wanted advice a few days later they felt comfortable asking because it had already been established that they had the agency to decide. Never be afraid to ask!
I hope this helps you help your friend. Above all, show them love. Show them how valuable they are to you. Show them that you accept them no matter how they are showing up every day. Show them you are proud of them for just showing up every day. And listen.
Remember to take care of yourself through it all. You are already being a kind and supportive friend by reaching out for support yourself. I’m really proud of you.