As someone who has watched someone close to me suffer from depression, and later experienced it myself, I’m in the unique position of having been on both sides. So I thought I should use this knowledge to help anyone out there who has a friend, family member, significant other that suffers from depression and simply doesn’t know what to do. So in this post I will go over some big Dos and Don’ts for supporting a depressed person.
How Do I Know If Someone Is Suffering?
This is probably the first question you should ask. It’s easy to assume that people who are depressed wear it on their sleeve, but that is a huge misconception. Many people, such as myself, are great actors and can fool even the people closest to them. My own parents had no idea I struggled with mental health until one of them found my prescription medication in my room. Many of my friends still have no idea. In general, be observant, pay attention. If someone isn’t acting like themselves, check in, ask what’s going on. Here are some subtle signs someone may be going through:
- Low energy
- For example seems extra tired, slumped shoulders, talking at a quieter volume than normal, seeming extra “lazy”, sighing
- Lack of interest in their typical hobbies, activities or other things they usually enjoy
- Isolating themselves
- Spending a lot of time at home, flaking on plans, rejecting invitations to go out
- Loss of appetite or overeating
- Poor hygiene and a messy environment
- Not showering or washing hair, a messy house, not doing laundry, etc.
- Negative attitude
- This might take the form of being extremely cynical or defeatist, finding unfounded flaws in everything and everyone
- Lack of engagement with other people
- Will not contribute much to the conversation, if at all, monotone voice
- Saying disturbing or troubling things
- Such as “I wish I didn’t exist,” “nobody cares about me,” “you shouldn’t be friends with me,” “I’m so worthless,” “it’d be nice to be hit by a car,” etc.
This last one is big. Depressed people sometimes act completely contrary to their feelings and interests. They will say something concerning or cryptic and then convince you they didn’t mean it and you’re reading too much into their words. You’ll ask how they’re doing and they’ll say “fine” or “good” when really they want to die. When I was in a dark place and hanging out with my closest friends, I would say things like “If I died would you come to my funeral?” or “if you were going to kill yourself, would you tell people?”, and tell them I was joking or I was just curious when they questioned me about it. Then I’d be bitter and resentful when they dropped the subject. This isn’t to say you should overreact and check them into an in-patient treatment facility, but let them know that they can talk to you if something is going on.
Now, the above list excludes the more obvious signs of depression, such as crying for no reason, saying “I’m depressed” (in a serious way, not a “I’m-so-depressed-that-dress-isn’t-in-my-size” kind of way), trying to walk into traffic. In that case you should really urge that person to get help, even if that does mean checking into an in-patient facility.
How to Help Someone Suffering from Depression
The #1 thing you can do is just be there. As mentioned above, one of the most common behaviors with depressed people is alienating or isolating themselves. If they’re an extrovert, invite them to dinner or to come over your house/dorm/apartment. They’ll protest at first and try to weasel out of it but this is the time for positive peer pressure. I never feel like doing anything when depressed, but always feel so much better once I’m hanging out with my friends outside my dorm. My best friend tends to be good at this, inviting me to go to sports games or dinner or a show with her and her friends just to distract me. If the person is an introvert or doesn’t have the energy to go anywhere, show up at their dorm/apartment/house with some food and wine or a movie or video games to play. I highly recommend watching something funny with them. Laughing causes a surge in dopamine, which could help raise their spirits. And if all else fails and your loved one can’t bring themselves to engage in anything, just sit there with them in silence. Just your presence can be comforting. Tied for the #1 thing you can do to help is encourage them to get healthy via taking medication and going to therapy. They will not get better in the long run if they don’t get help. A lot of people (especially bipolar people) resist being medicated and if you run across this, please refer them to my first post, where I walked through all the usual rationales for not going on medication and debunk them one by one. The second most important thing you can do is listen. When you’re depressed you tend to either feel numb, or have lots of pent-up emotion inside you. Either way, it’s great to have someone to talk to. And when I say listen, I mean really listen. A lot of what they’re saying might sound illogical to you, and you probably won’t understand it unless you’ve experienced it yourself, but it’s important to listen without judgement. If you can’t do that, then don’t offer. If you know your loved one is depressed, check-in on them throughout the day. Make sure they’ve eaten, showered, gotten out of bed. If you’re feeling really generous, offering to help them straighten up their place or cook or do laundry, none of which they probably feel like doing, is an immense help. Lastly, give them a hug (if they like physical contact that is, respect people’s boundaries). A lot of times even if I don’t feel like doing anything or talking, a big hug from one of my friends or my mom really touches me. Finally, educate yourself about depression and/or whatever mental illness your loved one is suffering from (most if not all mental illnesses either cause or go hand-in-hand with depression). I’m not saying you have to enroll in a psychology course or get your PhD, but read some articles or a book or two, ask them about how their illness affects them, read blogs like mine. It’s hard to help someone when you’re absolutely in the dark about what their illness entails. Besides, this will not only help you recognize warning signs so you know when to keep an eye on them, but you will also be able to intelligently and accurately debunk the ignorant opinions people casually throw around about mental health. Helping someone without educating yourself on their affliction is kind of like shooting in the dark. You might hit the bullseye if you get lucky but you’re much more likely to miss and do some damage, as we’ll talk more about below.
What to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed
A lot of times people don’t know what to say to someone who’s depressed or struggling with mental health. Here are the best things you can say:
- “I hear you”
- Like I said before, listening is HUGE. I for one feel so much better when I can get what’s been bothering me off my chest without fear I’ll be judged or that the person listening will think less of me for it.
- “You’re not alone, I got you” or “I’m not going anywhere, I’m here for you no matter what”
- Loneliness reaches an extreme level when depressed. Even if you have a great family and plenty of friends, it’s hard not to feel like you’re alone in the world. Being reassured that there’s someone you can lean on, who won’t give up on you, means a lot.
- “I know you feel like $@!% right now, but remember that your brain is lying to you”
- Depressed people need to be reminded of this, because it’s true. Our brains are so convincing when they tell us we’re worthless and a burden to everyone around us, and our friends and family would be better off without us in the picture. But that’s bull&#@!
- “I need you” or “I love you”
- As I said above, we depressed people always feel like a burden, like people would be better off without us. Letting us know that you need us as much as we need you eases this concern.
- “It’s ok to not be at 100%”
- If they’re anything like me, your loved one probably feels like a loser when they’re depressed. They can’t do anything, or be there for anyone, and just generally feel like a garbage heap of a human being. This tells them that it’s alright not to be perfect right now; that caring about their mental health should be their biggest priority.
And when your loved one does take steps toward getting better, such as getting on medication and going to therapy (I will emphasize this a lot throughout this article–it’s so important) they’re going to need you to be their cheerleader! It’s really easy to slip back into bad habits and they will need some encouragement along the way. Especially since the process of finding the right medication can be long and difficult (but well worth it), as I explain here.
What Not to Say to Someone Who’s Depressed
I can’t emphasize enough, when someone is depressed that is NOT the time to give tough love. In fact, it is one of the most damaging things you could do. Here are the worst things to say to someone who’s depressed, that are guaranteed to make them feel worse. Some of these I’ve been told myself and some of them I’ve heard from other people’s stories. All are egregious:
- “I’ve been sad before too, it passes”
- Sad is different than depressed. This is a perfect example of why mental health education is so important. Sadness is an emotion, not a state of being. Depression can last anywhere from days (in rapid cycling bipolar disorder for instance) to years.
- “I understand what you’re going through”
- Unless you’ve actually experienced depression in your life, this is bull@$!# and will only serve to frustrate the person you’re “helping.”
- “Just stop thinking about it” or “Get over it”
- If it was that easy, everybody would do it, wouldn’t they?
- “You’re not even trying to get better/be happy” or “Depression is a Choice”
- Yeah and so was slavery *rolls eyes*. No one tries to be depressed. Everyday that depressed person decides to live rather than take the ugly way out is trying.
- “You have a great life, there’s no reason to be depressed” or “There are plenty of people in the world who are far worse off than you, you should be grateful”
- Wow now that person feels both depressed, and immensely guilty! Great job. Depression has nothing to do with your life circumstances, it is a glitch in your brain chemistry, thus why it is an illness. Do not feel angry or offended that someone close to you is depressed. It doesn’t mean they don’t love you, it means they’re sick, and just like you wouldn’t tell someone not to cry over a broken bone, you shouldn’t tell someone their depression isn’t warranted.
- “If you really wanted to kill yourself, you would be dead rn”
- Depression is a serious thing. According to the latest data, approximately 1.4 million people attempted suicide in 2018. Almost 50,000 succeeded. You should see the fact that your loved one has not attempted/succeeded as a victory, not use it as ammo against them.
- “Toughen up” or “Suck it up”
- Having a mental illness has nothing to do with being tough. It’s tough to seek help. It’s tough to stay alive when your brain is constantly telling you the world would be better off without you. So @#$&! you!
Other things to avoid: do not try to fix them. You can’t–only therapy, medication, and a desire to get better on their part can do that. My best friend often says she sometimes feels like she’s failing because she knows nothing she does will immediately make me better. And she’s right. But just doing and saying the things above, which she has always done without any prompting on my part, makes an immense difference when I’m down. At least once, it literally made the difference between life and death. And though bringing me to games or watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt with me doesn’t make the depression go away, I’m positive it makes my depressive episodes shorter and more bearable than they would’ve been otherwise.
The Difference Between Someone Who Needs Your Help and Someone Toxic
At the same time, I’ve unfortunately heard of cases where deeply troubled people use their mental illness to manipulate the people close to them. As I said above, it is not your job to try to fix your loved one, and your loved one should not expect you to. If you’re friend/significant other/family member does things like make you feel guilty when you have to deal with things going on in your own life, expect you to be on call 24/7, threatens self-harm or suicide if you leave them/aren’t there for them, and/or expects you to pour all your energy into them without ever reciprocating, then they are toxic and you should not feel guilty for distancing yourself from them. Letting them be completely dependent on you is a sign of major instability and is not fair to you or your mental health. In that situation the only thing you can do is implore them to get help and let them know you need space. It sucks, but it is necessary. This situation is best summed up by a character from one of my favorite shows, Bojack Horseman. The extremely selfish titular character’s ex-girlfriend tells him this:
“[T]here are going to be times when you’ll see someone in trouble. You’re going to want to rush in there and do whatever you can to save them, but you have to stop yourself. Because there are some people you can’t save. Cause those people will thrash and struggle, and try to take you down with them.”
If any people who suffer from depression are reading this–remember to encourage your friends and let them know how much you appreciate them! Depression isn’t an easy thing to deal with for everyone involved. Give some positive reinforcement and let them know that what they’re doing makes an impact. And if you would rather be helped in a specific way–i.e. wine and take-out is good but you would really rather your friend send you funny memes throughout the day–let them know that too so they can help you in the way you want to be helped.
To close out, I highly encourage you to watch the video below. It’s from the TV show The West Wing and gives the best analogy for everything I’ve talked about and really encapsulates my relationship with my best friend, who gave me the idea for this article:
Thank you to my best friend Natalie, my other super supportive friends, and my Mom all of whom give me reason to get out of bed every day!