If you’re not dealing with depression, there’s a pretty good chance that you know someone who is.
With 6.7% of all adults in America (some 16.2 million) and 10.9% of adults ages 18 to 25 struggling with major depression, chances are, we’ve all been impacted. Personally, I’ve had both friends and family members with depression.
As a friend to someone with depression, it’s hard to know what to do. It’s difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who won’t pick up the phone, and is struggling to care for themselves, much less the people around them.
As someone who has been depressed on a few different occasions, I’ve also felt that need for a friend to step outside of their comfort zone and pick up the slack during more difficult seasons, like when I’ve been dealing with the stress of unemployment, dealing with postpartum mental illness, or grieving the loss of my brother. If you’re not sure how to care for your friend struggling with depression, these four steps are a good starting place.
Start with unconditional love
Loving someone with depression isn’t always simple. During some of my most difficult months, I found I would disappear for days or weeks at time. I had very little desire to return texts or get out with friends and do something fun. To be honest, I wasn’t a good friend.
Being a friend to someone with depression should always begin with unconditional love and acceptance. This could look like patiently reaching out again and again, even when you don’t hear back, or continuing to ask how they are, even when you know the answer likely won’t be positive. A friend in a dark place needs to know more than anything that you care for them, no matter how their personality changes or how hard it is for them to maintain your friendship.
Be an informed friend
If you haven’t dealt with depression yourself, it’s easy to jump to conclusions about how a person with depression feels or what they should be doing to get better. Too often, these judgements are based on how you see the world as someone who isn’t depressed, not in your friend’s actual experience.
Before you offer advice or make judgments about anyone with this illness, inform yourself. A compassionate relationship with someone who’s depressed has to begin with a good understanding of what they’re experiencing, especially if you find yourself frustrated by their slow or seemingly nonexistent progress. Spend a few minutes on the website for the Anxiety and Depression Association of America or reading the bestselling book, “The Noonday Demon” by Andrew Solomon.
Keep showing up
When I was depressed, I often found myself wishing for company, but I rarely felt brave enough to speak up and ask for it. It made a huge difference that I had one friend who kept inviting me out and calling even when I often said no. Don’t wait for your struggling friends to ask for what they need, keep showing up in their lives.
It isn’t abnormal for people with depression to lack the motivation to do some of the things that are best for them — getting out of the house, staying active, or spending time with friends. Don’t be afraid to be a bit pushy. Invite them for lunch or coffee, ask them to keep you company on a walk, or invite yourself over for a movie night if they don’t feel like getting out of the house.
Ask hard questions
There is no easy way to ask someone if they feel like hurting themselves, but keeping silent isn’t worth the risk. Not all depression comes with thoughts of self-harm, but the only way to rule out that possibility is by asking your friend outright.
One of the easiest ways to approach this question is by focusing on their safety. Questions like, “Do you feel safe alone?” or “Will you tell me if you stop feeling safe?” communicate to your friend that you are a trusted place they can turn if they are dealing with self-harm thoughts. If you ever learn that a friend is considering hurting themselves, take action. Drive them to an emergency room or reach out to a family member who can ensure their safety or help them make a call to National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
Originally published on August 16, 2018.