What to do and what NOT to do if you have a friend who is seriously depressed
Robin Williams’ suicide is highlighting depression, this is a good thing. We need to talk about it.
I have friends who have had very serious depression, and I have had depression myself. So I’m writing this post in the hope that it will help people who just don’t know what to say or do when someone they know is depressed. I hope it will help prevent people unwittingly being unhelpful when they are trying to be helpful, that it will help to change people’s attitudes and actions.
So. Depression. Whether it is completely unexplained or as a result of life circumstances it is a terrible illness and all the worse because people who are supposedly friends can be more puzzled than sympathetic and inevitably try to offer a solution rather than just accepting and listening.
‘Why CAN’T you snap out of it?’,
‘It’s no wonder, given the major bereavement/work stress/trauma you went through – give it time and you’ll get better.’
‘You need to do some voluntary work, look outside yourself and don’t be so self absorbed’,
‘This too shall pass’,
‘Prayer and faith will help, hand it over to God’,
‘Write 3 things you are grateful for every day, it works wonders’,
‘Get fit, if you’re active, it will change the chemistry of your brain’,
‘It could be hormonal, anxiety is linked to hormonal changes’,
‘Have you tried meditation/yoga/homeopathy/anti depressants/acupuncture etc etc etc’.
…the list goes on and on. I myself have been all too guilty of offering such solutions, misguidedly. I have also been on the receiving end, when I was depressed. Let me tell you how that felt.
If a depressed person is offered well meaning solutions, great as they might be, they then will probably find it hard to talk to the friend who offered the solution again, because the friend might say ‘did you do what I suggested?’ and if not (which is likely if they are in a very dark place), they will lose sympathy.
Giving a depressed person a ‘should’ is simply adding to their burden. THEY’RE DEPRESSED, which means they are probably finding it hard to get up and dressed in the morning.
If you feel strongly that, for example, your very depressed friend would benefit from exercise, instead of telling them that they ‘should’ get more exercise, tell them you’re going for a walk, and would they like to come along. One day they might feel well enough.
Or if you think meditation/faith/yoga would help them, tell them about the meditation group/church/yoga class you go to and ask them if they’d like to come along, don’t just say they ‘should’ try it.
Instead of offering your friend the burden of a ‘should’, why don’t you lighten their load, as you might help someone who’d broken their leg or was recovering from an operation? Deliver them a home-cooked meal, or offer to go round and do their ironing while you both watch TV. THEY ARE ILL, so they need practical help just as much as if they had their leg in plaster.
If you have a friend who is very seriously depressed and you are worried, of course advise they talk to their doctor, or – if they talk about lying awake at night or having dangerous thoughts – remind them that the Samaritans are there just to talk to 24/7 any hour of the day or night, but otherwise as a friend the best thing you can do is to LISTEN and BE THERE.
Keep on checking in on them – it probably took a lot for them to confide in you, so if you don’t contact them afterwards they will feel that you see their depression as shameful or embarrassing, or you don’t care about them. Don’t push them to go out and ‘have fun’, if it’s easier for them to go for a walk in the woods than to a crowded bar, walk with them in the woods. If they want to talk about their feelings then listen, and if they don’t, walk in silence but walk at their side.
Don’t judge or ever think that it’s about time they ‘got over’ it. Don’t say what worked for you or someone you know. Tell them that you are so sorry they have this terrible illness, that it could happen to anyone and it does not define them. Tell them you care for them and are there for them, and then try your best to live up to your words.