Depression is one of the toughest, loneliest experiences that people go through. If you’re trying to work out how to help someone with depression, you might feel powerless. You just want to reach out to the person you love.
The do’s and don’ts of helping other people with depression
Depression affects nearly 300 million people worldwide, and knowing where to start with helping someone through it can be a tricky task.
Try to remember these basic guidelines:
- Do: Communicate. Start a conversation with your friend, using openers such as “I’ve noticed,” or “I’m worried about.” If you start with “You don’t seem the same,” or “you’ve been acting,” it may make them defensive.
- Do: Be open. Sometimes, just providing a listening ear can be an enormous help. Listen without judgement, and think about what responses you’d want if you were in their shoes.
- Do: Be patient. There’s no quick and easy fix for depression. Just be there for them, however how long it may take.
- Don’t: Think you can cure them. Depression is a complex issue, and the majority of cases will need treatment from a mental health professional.
- Don’t: Give up. It’s going to be a tough journey ahead, but you can get through it together.
And most importantly, do look out for the signs that they may be considering suicide. If you have concerns, ask them to contact their therapist, or if you can contact assistance on their behalf.
It’s so important to be there for your loved ones, and to know the signs. In some scenarios, spotting depression in a friend can help to save a life. Not gonna lie: that can lead to you feeling a lot of pressure on your shoulders.
But before this all starts sounding overwhelming, shake those shoulders out and relax. Some simple do’s and don’ts can help you become the beacon of light that your friend needs right now. Depression is complex, but the ways in which you support those you love don’t need to be.
And remember: you got this sh*t.
When you’re looking at ways to help, remember that there’s many different types of depression, and everyone’s experience is different.
Two people experiencing similar depressive symptoms can have completely different experiences with it. Not to mention the different types — someone with postpartum depression may experience different symptoms than a person with unipolar depression and anxiety.
That can be hard for someone trying to give their friend a hand. But you’re here because you’re determined to help. Here’s what you can do no matter what type of depression your friend has.
Sometimes, being there and listening can provide great comfort. We all know that feeling of needing to vent.
The same may well be true of your friend. Some people with depression are reluctant to talk about it at first, but you may find that providing an open ear for them can really help.
How to listen to someone with depression
It’s a good idea to:
- Start the conversation with “I” statements, such as “I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet lately,” or “I’m worried about you.” This is better than “you” statements like, “You’ve been acting differently lately.” These can sound accusatory.
- Ask lots of open questions like, “How have you been doing?”
- Show that you understand their feelings in your answers.
- Show genuine interest, and make them your focus.
- Avoid being pushy.
2. Assist with finding support
Making that first appointment with a therapist can be a big step, and just finding the therapist that’s right for them can be pretty daunting.
If your friend seems interested in exploring the idea of therapy, help them take that first step.
It might involve searching through local therapists to see which one best suits. Maybe your friend needs help gathering their thoughts to bring them up during their appointment.
Searching for therapists is an easier job when it’s shared, and having a brainstorming session for points they want to discuss can be super helpful.
3. Set their expectations
It’s easy to feel exhausted by expectations in a world where everyone except you seems to have a perfect life.
For people going through depression, this can be even more overwhelming, so it’s great to help them set their expectations. Reassure them that no one expects them to feel better overnight. It’s a journey, and they’re on the right track.
Setting short- and long-term goals can be good for your friend, letting them feel more productive in their day-to-day life.
Short-term goals can involve anything from getting out of bed in the morning to completing a full month of therapy. Long-term goals could include making bigger changes in their lives that’ll boost their happiness, such as moving house.
4. Be there for them during treatment
When it comes to health issues, everyone wants a quick fix. That’s unlikely with depression.
Your friend may lose motivation and feel like their therapy, their medication, or both, aren’t worth bothering with anymore. It can feel really challenging to find the energy to maintain treatment.
Remind them that they should try to keep up their treatment, but support their wishes. If they truly don’t click with their therapist, or the side effects of the medication have become too much, help them learn about different options.
In both cases, encourage and support your friend during the times they may want to cease all treatment, as this is a common experience for many people struggling with depression. Many types of therapy and medication regimens require ongoing sessions.
Finding a new therapist or discussing a different dosage of meds are much better than stopping completely and suddenly.
5. Don’t forget to look out for yourself
You might feel like you want to be with your friend every single day, helping them as much as you can. The reality is that you can burn out very quickly.
The truth is that you need time and space to recharge. A burnt-out friend can only help so much, so you’re ultimately doing both of you a favor.
Set boundaries. Instead of checking in every day, consider making it every other day. Or you could agree on a set of rules on when you discuss it together, such as not before or after a certain hour (unless emergencies happen, of course).
It’s okay to be a little selfish about your time every now and then.
6. Educate yourself
Think of depression as that boss character in a video game. The first time you encounter it, you get flattened. You don’t have a clue what you’re doing. So you read up on how to beat it or watch a YouTube video.
Treat your friend’s depression in exactly the same way — except in real life, there’s no cheat code. The more you know about depression, the better equipped you are to help them defeat it.
It can be exhausting for your friend to keep repeating how they feel. Reading up on depression can help you understand without asking as often.
7. Chip in with chores
Ever have one of those days where you just… can’t? Someone living with depression might feel this way every day. The more often that happens, the more overwhelming it can get, until simple tasks go unfulfilled for days or weeks.
Heck, make it enjoyable. If there’s a ton of dishes to be washed, slap on some tunes and have one of you wash while the other dries. Good music and conversation will have that dish mountain conquered before you know it.
8. Bring them along on fun activities
Depression can be a lonely place. People living with it may feel that they can’t or shouldn’t leave their house. They may not want to hang out with others, feeling like they’ll suck all the fun out of the room.
It’s important to persuade your friend that this isn’t the case. Invite them out regularly for activities that they may enjoy. Even something as simple as a trip to the mall can get them out and about.
But don’t insist. If they’re not in the mood to go out today, no problem. And don’t stop the invites either, even if they knock you back a few times. Your friend will accept when they’re ready.
Also, make sure that it’s an activity you know your friend would enjoy. There’s no need to nuke comfort zones right now. Familiar = good.
9. Have patience
Patience is your main job here.
There’s no quick fix to depression. Most antidepressants aren’t effective immediately, and finding the right dosage comes after a lot of trial and error. Therapy’s hard and takes time, too.
Even when the medication is right, your friend will most likely still go through good and bad days before they start to feel like they’ve reached a better place.
Throughout all of this, your loved one may feel like they’re failing and not getting better. It’s important that you stay patient and encourage them to keep the faith.
10. Check in with them
Keeping in touch with a depressed friend is simple but super effective.
It’s not even about regular meetups or face-to-face contact. Set up video chats, voice chat while playing your favorite video game, or just send a text asking how they are. It’s quick, easy, and lets them know that someone cares.
It’s especially important during COVID-19. A 2020 study found that the pandemic has had a significant impact on mental health, leading to more people feeling isolated and living with depression.
Pick up that phone and check in.
11. Know the symptoms — and look out for them
It sounds basic, but just knowing the symptoms can be a huge help. A lot of people with depression don’t even realize that they have it. In fact, the average time between developing depression and seeking help is 5 years. Yikes.
Look out for these signs:
- They often seem sad or tearful.
- They talk about feeling empty or worthless.
- They don’t spend as much time with you as they used to, or don’t express much interest in doing their usual hobbies.
- They’re quick to get angry or irritable.
- They don’t have much energy, and household chores go undone.
- They often seem tired or listless.
- They don’t seem to have an appetite.
- They’re forgetful or indecisive.
Things you can say, and things you shouldn’t
There’s definitely things you can say to someone with depression that’ll help them out and make them feel a little better about life. And there are definite no-no’s which won’t help at all.
Do say the following:
- “Do you want to talk about it?” ✅
- “I’m ready to talk when you are.” ✅
- “What can I do to help?” ✅
- “How are you doing?” ✅
- “I don’t understand exactly how you feel, but I’m here for you.” ✅
- “You’re important to me.” ✅
Don’t say the following:
- “Cheer up!” ⛔️
- “Get over it!” ⛔️
- “You don’t seem depressed.” ⛔️
- “It could be worse.” ⛔️
- “I know how you feel.” ⛔️
- “You’re just imagining this.” ⛔️
It’s easy to make mistakes when you’re trying to help someone through depression, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up too much. This is as new to you as it is to your friend. Forgive yourself for mistakes instead of withdrawing because you got one thing wrong.
Here’s some things to avoid when supporting your loved one.
1. Don’t be a fixer
It can really tempting to try to “fix” someone with depression, even if you’re coming from a genuine place.
But you’re not the one with depression. What seems simple to you might not compute with them. Telling someone living with it to simply stop living with it doesn’t help. It’s more likely to make your friend withdraw.
After all, would you tell someone with a broken leg to just stop having a broken leg?
Give them positive support instead. It’s fine to encourage positive thinking, but don’t frame it as a magical cure which will see off their depression once and for all.
2. Don’t take their responses personally
It can be difficult to help a friend with depression. You may become the target of their anger or they may regularly bail on meeting up.
Although your feelings can get hurt, you’ve got to remember that it’s nothing personal. It may just be that your friend needed to lash out at someone, and you were the person they felt most comfortable unleashing on.
The expression “you only hurt the ones you love” can be pretty accurate in this situation — you can even take it as a compliment.
Remember that it’s okay to take a break for a couple of days and wait until things have cooled down. Lashing out at you, and the likely guilt that follows for doing so, is another example of the lack of control your friend may be feeling.
It might be difficult not to feel resentful and irritated at being the target of your friend’s difficulty with emotional management, try to process this in a productive way, such as journaling or educating yourself on ways depression shows up.
3. Don’t offer advice
Another tempting trap when you’re helping someone with depression can be to offer advice. Get a new job! Move house right now! Go get some exercise! And your friend’s advice, in return, might be: Get f*cked.
Sure, healthy eating and exercise can help. But put yourself in your friend’s shoes: Would you really want someone firing life advice at you, especially when getting out of bed seems like a huge task?
Lead by example instead. Think that a good walk in the countryside is just what your friend needs? Invite them to go on that walk together.
Save all your tips until your friend asks for them. Just listen in the meantime.
4. Don’t play the comparison game
If people with depression had a dollar for every time they heard the words “yeah, I’ve been feeling a bit down lately, too,” they’d probably be able to buy a private island.
Newsflash: Unless you’ve been through a depressive episode yourself, the chances are that you don’t understand how it feels. Comparing it to regular sadness can invalidate the feelings of peeps with depression.
Similarly, try to avoid comparisons with other people who have depression. Everyone’s depression experience is different. What worked for your other friends might not help this unique person.
Instead, it’s usually better to tell them that you don’t understand how they feel, but that you’re there for them. You can offer support without diminishing what they’re going through in any way.
5. Don’t try forcing or encouraging any specific treatment
There are many different ways of treating depression, and just as many different types of medication. Which one your friend ends up taking is 💯 their decision.
You may have strong views on certain depression treatments. Whichever way you lean, your opinion is going to have to stay tucked inside your head.
There isn’t a guaranteed cure when it comes to depression. Finding out what’s right is often a case of trial, error, and discovering what the individual is comfortable with.
It’s a really personal decision — so leave it to your friend and their healthcare professional. Even if you think that their decision is totally wrong, keep your lips sealed. Throw your energy behind supporting whatever decision they make instead.
6. Avoid overcrowding them
Everyone needs space from time to time, so don’t overcrowd your friend.
Sometimes, giving them that space to breathe can help just as much as if you were there beside them. Everyone needs some “me” time and your friend is no exception.
It also has the double benefit of letting you recharge your batteries, and focus on yourself for a while. Take the opportunity for some self-care, and go back to your friend fully refreshed.
7. Don’t try and rush the process
There’s no set time frame on how long it’ll take your friend to get to a better place — and no rush, either. Medication and therapy will do their jobs, but not overnight.
It’s important that your friend has all the time they need to come to terms with their depression and start working through it when they’re ready.
Your friend is the one leading their slow walk toward recovery from depression. Your job is listening, following their lead, supporting them, and reacting to their needs.
Just be there for them, however long it takes.
Are they also struggling with anxiety? Here’s how you can help
- Acknowledge the anxiety. People with anxiety will often ask you for reassurance — instead, point out that’s what they’re doing. They may not have realized that they were doing it, and it can often “break the spell.”
- Help them to relax. Getting out of an anxious mindset can work wonders, and sometimes it’s as simple as distraction. Ask them a question out of the blue, such as “if you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Otherwise, encourage them to join you in meditation, yoga, or breathing exercises.
- Set a time limit. Agree that they can have a set amount of time to worry about something, after which they switch it off. This can work surprisingly well for folks with anxiety.
- Listening. Lend an ear without judgment. Ask how you can help, and come up with a plan together.
- Help them find professional help. If your friend is interested, help them explore healthcare options.
What if your friend considers suicide?
The signs can be hard to spot. People living with depression are often good at hiding it from the world, and wearing a mask of contentedness. There may be zero indication that they’re considering suicide.
Ways to spot if your friend has a risk of suicide include:
- withdrawing from family and friends
- taking unnecessary risks (such as driving too fast)
- rapid mood changes
- talking about death or suicide a lot
- buying a weapon or stockpiling pills
- using drink or drugs more often than usual
- giving away valued possessions
- talking about feeling trapped
- saying goodbye to friends and family, or making a will
- talking about feeling guilty or ashamed
All you can do is keep an eye out.
There’s a few suicide prevention hotlines who may well be able to help you in a crisis:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If text messaging is more your thing, the Crisis Text Line can be reached by texting HOME to 741741.
- If you’re outside of the U.S., check out The International Association for Suicide Prevention, who can help you find resources in your home country.
If it seems that your friend is considering suicide, and you need to intervene, take the following steps:
- Ask them about it. You may worry that asking your friend if they’re considering suicide might push them into doing it, but a 2012 study found that asking the question didn’t lead to any increase in suicidal behavior.
- Keep them safe. Are there dangerous objects nearby? Are there firearms, or medications? Are there places where they could cause themselves harm? Secure the area as much as you can.
- Listen. It may be that once they start talking about their intent to commit suicide, their resolve to do it actually decreases. Listen to what they’re saying.
- Get help. Call their therapist, one of the suicide prevention hotlines above, or 911 in an emergency. This may not be something you can handle alone, and you want to make sure your friend is in the best possible hands.
Helping someone with depression can seem like a huge task. Depression itself is so complex.
But some of the most valuable things you can do to help are the simplest. Listen to them. Keep in touch, whether it’s in person, by video call, or just a simple text message. Be open about discussing depression, so that your friend knows they can come to you whenever they need you.
More than anything, just give them your support. Be there for them, during the good days and the bad. Let them take the lead. Encourage them when they feel hopeless, and tell them all the reasons they’re wonderful when they express worthlessness.
These are key things you can do to look out for the people you love.