How to support friends or family with depression
Depression can be hard to understand, particularly if you’ve not experienced it yourself. Everyone gets sad sometimes, but why do some people seem to have more difficulty than others? Even if you’ve not had personal experiences with depression, there are things you can do to support the people in your life that are in the midst of it.
This blog is about how to support a friend with depression. If you yourself have depression, consider sharing it with your tribe so they can better support you! And if you have a friend who is struggling, this blog will help you to better understand depression and what you can do to help the people you care about.
Depression 101 for friends and family
One of the most frustrating things about depression is that sometimes there is not necessarily one particular “reason” a person may feel depressed. On the outside it may seem as though their lives are going really well or they may be a hugely successful person and look like they have every reason to be happy. Depression doesn’t always look like being unable to get out of bed or having personal hygiene issues… it can be extreme fatigue, irritability, feeling emotional pain, and just wanting to be alone/withdraw, among other things.
One thing to remember is that even though sometimes people may be able to influence their depression symptoms a bit by their actions (e.g., taking care of themselves, good nutrition, etc), people never CHOOSE to have depression and sometimes the very things that will help are the things that feel near impossible to initiate (e.g., taking a shower, going for a walk, reaching out for help, etc).
How do you help a Friend with Depression?
It’s heartbreaking to see someone you care about struggle, act unlike themselves/lose their vibrancy, or even withdraw from you. Here are some things that you can try to do to help a friend who is dealing with depression.
- Listen without trying to ‘fix’ them
- Keep Inviting them out
- Offer to help with specific things
- Check in on them / let them know you care
- Encourage self-care
- Express concern and encourage extra support
- Try not to take things personally
Help by listening to them instead of trying to “fix” their depression
First and foremost, it can be invalidating if you try to problem solve for people with depression. No one likes to feel badly, and chances are, they have likely considered what you want to suggest. Instead of problem solving, actively listen to them and validate what they are saying/feeling. This may sound like “Wow, I can really tell that you are miserable and that it doesn’t seem like anything can help. I know that’s a dark place to be and it can be hard to remember times when things weren’t this way.”
If they ask for your help with figuring out a situation, game on, but please try to do this without pointing out everything you feel like they may have done wrong. They don’t need “I told you so’s”, they need to hear that they are not alone and that there is hope and light at the end of the tunnel. They may have tried something 5x before but not been in the right emotional space for it to be effective and need a cheering squad and encouragement to try again. But remember, don’t push; listen, support and encourage.
Continue to invite them places and keep them feeling wanted and involved with your friend network
In the same vein, continue to invite your friends to outings/activities even when they are struggling with depression. Even if they usually say no, it helps to know that you are thinking of them and that they still have the option to hang out. Continue to include them. One of the most difficult things for someone with depression is when those invitations STOP coming in. When they feel that their depression has now alienated them from the people in their lives and that they are no longer wanted. It doesn’t’ hurt anything to include them in a group chat you shoot out about having a card game at your house, they can still choose to come or not and it keeps them feeling involved.
I know it’s hard and frustrating to invite someone over and over again for them to not show, but taking the 5 min to call or text them personally to let them know they are invited keeps them feeling valued and wanted when everything else is feeling so dark.
No Blanket Statements; be genuine and specific with offers to help
Another tip is to offer to help with specific things. No blanket statements of “let me know if I can do anything to help”. Sometimes when people are depressed, they aren’t sure what would feel good to them so it may help to have options. This may be something like: “I have to go to the grocery store tomorrow, are you out of anything that I can pick up for you? Let me know.” Maybe they need help getting motivated to tackle a home task and you can inquire about that, this might look like; “Why don’t I come over this weekend and we start tackling getting that kitchen organized, what is better for you Saturday or Sunday?”. Keep in mind that people who are struggling with depression may feel like a burden already. So, it helps to phrase things in ways that reassures that they aren’t. Telling someone “I was in a baking mood so I cooked way too much lasagna, I am going to drop some off to you to make sure I don’t eat it all myself” can be far easier on a person than “would you like me to cook a lasagna for you”.
Check in not out
Continue to check in on your friends via text, phone call, or email. Even if it feels like too much energy to talk on the phone, provide them with that option and let them know that you still care about them, always will, and that you haven’t forgotten about them. You can even go old school and send a card through snail mail! It is amazing how good it can feel to get “real” mail; it lets the person know that you put more than a few seconds of thoughts into reaching out. Now, I get it, life gets busy and it is really easy to go weeks or months without checking in on our friends/loved ones. But when someone is struggling with depression this can leave them feeling abandoned, isolated and alone. If necessary, set and alarm or write in your calendar to check in on the person you care about on a regular basis if you know they have a history of depression. That 3-month gap in talking might be because things were busy on your end but it also might be that they relapsed into a deeper depression and didn’t reach out for help as it was happening. Sometimes, oftentimes, they need someone to do the reaching out for them.
Encourage your friend with depression to engage in self-care.
Depression often leads people to not take care of themselves as they normally would. You may want to encourage your friends to continue to drink water, eat nutritious meals, and keep up with personal hygiene. This could look like sending little reminders or physically bringing them some of these things to make it a bit easier. Throw in getting them to go on a walk with you or to get up and moving in some way as an extra layer of needed self-care. They are most likely going to decline this offer but every once in a while, they may surprise you and say yes. And trust me, it is a big deal when they do, even if it doesn’t look like it to you.
Express concern and encourage outside support if needed
If your friend’s condition seems to be deteriorating, and you’re worried about their ability to handle daily life, encourage them to seek professional help. This can be a difficult conversation, but if you approach the topic from a place of concern and compassion, hopefully it will be received well. Everyone has bad days, but if your friend is beginning to find it hard to get out of bed for days on end, it is time to start seriously considering outside professional support, which you can normalize and encourage them to do.
What to say to a friend to encourage them to seek professional help
- You seem like you are struggling more than usual, I think it may be time to get some extra help
- Have you seen your doctor lately?
- How are things going with your therapist?
- Would you like me to come with you to your next appointment?
- Why don’t we write down a few things that you may need to let the doctor know about how you have been feeling
- I know you have had bad experiences in therapy in the past, why don’t I help you find someone new? This time might be better. I will go with you until you get comfortable.
- Getting help is not a failure, it takes a lot of strength to reach out.
- You deserve to feel better, it’s ok to make yourself a priority right now, no matter what else is going on
Don’t personalize or internalize
Finally, try your best not to take things personally. If a friend struggling with depression is withdrawing from you, that doesn’t mean that they are intentionally doing this to you, they are trying to take care of themselves as best they can and sometimes don’t have the bandwidth or energy to engage with life the way they want to or normally would. Unfortunately, that often includes shutting out friends. The “real” them still exists, try to remember that depression leads people to act in ways they wouldn’t normally act. Your frustration and sadness regarding a friend’s absence are valid, just try to keep in perspective that their behavior isn’t about you. You didn’t do anything wrong. And you alone cannot “save” them from their depression. You can be their cheering squad but you cannot walk this path for them.
Depression is a serious issue that can limit enjoyment in life. If you or a friend are dealing with depression, counseling or medication may been an important step. Having extra support is sometimes needed to help manage and lesson depression symptoms. If you think you may be on the verge of a major depressive episode, the sooner you receive help the better. You and your therapist can work toward a self-care plan so you can take action to combat the symptoms of depression and work toward maintaining your mental health and peace. If you are looking for more ways to help support a family member or friend with depression, check out the Mayo Clinic’s website to become better educated on the signs and symptoms of depression as well as treatment approaches.