Nearly everyone has had a friend or a family member who has been diagnosed or describes themselves as being depressed. More than 3 million Americans are diagnosed with depression every year. It can be difficult to know how to handle friends and family members battling this condition, so here are ten non-medical ideas gathered from experience — both personal and with friends.
10. Take suicidal ideation seriously. If someone says they are going to kill themselves, do not dismiss it as attention seeking. You may have to call 911.
If someone says, “I even felt like killing myself last week/yesterday,” see if you can assess where they are now and what they plan to do about that feeling in the future. It may seem very “After School Special” to make sure they know the number to a suicide hotline, but it’s better to be cheesy than grieving the loss of a loved one.
9. Don’t ask why. Most people either don’t know why they’re depressed, or they’re so overwhelmed they don’t know where to begin. Sometimes a person will end up telling you in the course of running through what they feel.
If you really can’t have a conversation without asking questions, you can prompt them by asking things like “When did this start for you?” “Whom do you ask for help? Can I be that person for you sometimes?” “What do you think would help?”
The answers to these questions are sometimes frustrated responses, but they do help the person tell their story and even focus on ways they themselves can combat it, when they’re ready. Usually, people just need to ramble a bit.
8. If a person battling depression cancels plans with you, try to handle it like you would if a person had the flu. Depression is an illness, whether biochemical or the result of grief piled upon sadness upon numbness. You would never yell at someone or hold a grudge if someone canceled with the flu. Try not to with someone who is depressed.
7. Be present for whatever is needed. Some people don’t need to talk. Maybe your friend or family member just wants to watch movies or play mini golf. Maybe they want a pew mate for church or a +1 for an event. This means your depressed loved one is trying to live, and trusts you enough to be safe company.
6. That said, you need not be a martyr. If you are sick, swamped, otherwise committed, exhausted, or depressed yourself, it’s okay to say “I love you and it would be awesome to do that. I can’t that day, but could we pick another time?” If it’s a specific event, you can tell them you’re honored they chose you and you wish you could. If they need to talk about it, tell them a time you can sit and listen — and stick to it.
5. Sometimes your friend/family member will be unfairly angry with you. Don’t take that personally. You wouldn’t be annoyed with someone for being in a coma, and as hard as it is, someone who is depressed sometimes reacts without thinking. They may say something really bitter to you without meaning it. This is their brain chemistry interfering with the ability to react rationally.
It is okay to say, “I understand you’re hurt, but I feel that was unfair. I also don’t think you meant it.” If they persist in being bitter or even cruel, it’s okay to say, “Look, I love you, but I don’t know if this conversation is going to go anywhere.” You can be present and protect yourself; try not to internalize it.
4. This is hard, because we’re all human, but try not to judge. You may have gone through an experience that by most people’s measure would be worse than any reason your friend offers for their depression, but they may have different brain chemistry. They may also not be telling you the whole story. A lot of people minimize with a friend because they are embarrassed or don’t want to upset you.
3. Try very hard not to contradict what a professional has instructed or prescribed to your friend. Unless you can prove unequivocally that it’s iatrogenic (a fancy word for treatment that harms), your feelings about medication or cognitive behavioral therapy versus spiritual counseling (or vice versa) should probably be kept to yourself.
If your friend asks to have an intellectual discussion about it, that’s one thing. But we shouldn’t discourage anyone from seeking help from persons better versed in treating depression than the two of you.
2. Don’t fix. You are not a therapist and nobody is paying you to be a life coach. Alleviate yourself of this burden and just listen when you can. Even someone with a doctorate in psychology will tell you that just listening helps so much, and people frequently sort out the answer to their issues anyhow.
Most importantly, Express your love, or at least friendship. Chances are, you care about this person if they are sharing how awful they feel with you. Tell them. Don’t be afraid to be cheesy. “I love you, man,” works well for dudes, and the worse case scenario is that your depressed friend or family member will laugh a little bit. The thing they’ll come away with, most importantly, is that someone loves them even when their own brain is telling them how worthless they are. That’s huge.