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10 Ways to Support a Friend with Depression

It is difficult to watch someone we love suffer without knowing how to help. When a friend’s parent dies, we bring a casserole. When she has been in a car accident, we pick her children up from school. But how to we help women who suffer from an invisible illness it is difficult to understand? Experimental Wifery brings you ten suggestions compiled from therapists, psychiatrists, and Alison’s own experience on the giving and receiving end of a supportive friendship for someone with depression.

1. Check in.

Make a habit of checking in with your suffering friend. Call every morning on your way to work—with a hands-free device, of course. Send her a card once a week. E-mail when you hear a joke she might like. Just let her know that you’re thinking of her and care about her.

My aunt sends me a text message almost every day. We don’t talk very often, but I know she loves me and cares that I’m getting better.

Things not to say:

  • “I’m just calling to check if you’re still alive.”
  • “I was afraid you weren’t going to make it through today!”
  • “I need to hear your voice every day!”

2. Listen.

The most important thing you can do to support anyone is to listen. Ask active questions without passing judgment and try to avoid giving feedback or advice. You can have a two-way conversation in which you also share your experiences, but don’t project your feelings onto your friend unless you’ve also been clinically depressed. By listening, you validate her experience and let her know you care!

I call my mom on the way to work every morning. She just listens to me tell her about my day. It helps me get through all the things I need to do by listing them and expressing concerns in a non-judgmental environment.

Things not to say:

  • “Why should I care?”
  • “I know how you feel. I was depressed for a few days once.”

3. Let her know it’s okay to suffer.

Guilt is a major symptom of depression. In fact, many people with depression feel guilty about being depressed—or even guilty about feeling guilty. As you’re listening to your friend’s concerns, one of the greatest gifts you can give her is the knowledge that she’s allowed to suffer. Other people are supporting her and taking care of her because she’s worth it.

I still have occasional breakdowns about how much time and money my treatment costs my family. But then Adam asks me, “Don’t you know you’re worth it to us?” I’ll never forget the first time I heard those words and how much they meant to me.

Things not to say:

  • “No one ever said life was fair.”
  • “It’s all in your mind!”

4. Don’t take it personally.

A person with depression isn’t always in control of her reactions. She may cry or react with anger at the things you say. It isn’t you. It’s the chemicals in her brain. Don’t get discouraged when you can’t always brighten your friend’s day. Depression can be like a very deep hole that it’s very difficult to dig your way out of. If your friend does something truly hurtful, write it down to address later when she’s in a more stable frame of mind.

My husband and mother-in-law redecorated our bedroom as a surprise for the day I got out of the hospital. I loved it, but I was so tired I just smiled and thanked my husband. He was let down and upset by my reaction, but I just didn’t have the energy to muster the excited response I wanted to. Thankfully, he understood after I explained the way I felt.

Things not to say:

  • “What’s your problem?”
  • “You’re still unhappy?”

5. When she seems to be fishing for compliments, let her catch something.

Often, people with depression who seem to be asking for your praise are actually looking for your approval. They’ve lost a sense that they’re worthwhile, so they want to know that you think they are. Remind your friend of what she has accomplished in the past. Go through an old high school yearbook together. Even help her kids make her cards with their favorite things about her. Do anything it takes to feel like a valuable person again.

Part of my recovery from depression has been to write myself a manifesto: There is nothing wrong with me, although I can improve the way I make space for other people to be themselves, too. Once I had that very difficult thought on paper, it took the help of many friends and family members to help me begin to believe it.

Things not to say:

  • “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
  • “You’re just looking for attention.”

6. Don’t offer unsolicited advice.

When we see a problem, many of us want to fix it. The impulse is good and charitable, but the results often have unintended consequences. When you give someone advice, you often forget to listen. And, particularly when you give advice to someone with depression, you may unintentionally undermine her illness. (Yes, she has probably taken many hot baths and drunk more than her fair share of cups of chamomile tea.) Never, ever offer medical advice to someone on antidepressants unless you are a medical professional.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, my mother and father gave me a notepad full of helpful suggestions like, “Do your best,” or, “I believe in you.” It was a thoughtful gesture, but I imagined they thought the depression was all in my head, that I could control it if I worked hard enough. So I tried to hide my depression for several weeks as it got worse and worse.

Things not to say:

  • “You can pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”
  • “Why don’t you try vitamins for your stress?”
  • “You should spend more time in prayer.”
  • “Get off the crazy pills!”

7. Lend a helping hand.

If you’re serious about helping a friend, material assistance is usually better than advice. Offer free babysitting. Straighten up her house. Bring by a home-cooked meal. Depression makes ordinary tasks difficult and stressful. Find out what’s hardest for your friend and take it off her plate for a few days.

For the six weeks I was in an acute phase of my illness, my mother-in-law, mother, aunt, and best friend all spent time living with us. They cooked, cleaned, baby-sat and offered a shoulder to cry on as Adam and I suffered through the most difficult challenge of our marriage. I honestly don’t know what we would have done without them.

Things not to say:

  • “Geez! This place is a dump!”
  • “Your kid seems really upset by all this.”

8. Plan an outing.

Depressed people are usually very lonely. Often they crave the company of other people, but they retreat to the safety of solitude. They would love to spend time with the people they care about, but depression robs them of the energy to plan even a simple evening out. Ask your friend to go dancing. Or bring dinner by and stay for a movie. Even something as simple as sharing a trip to the grocery store can be one of the best parts of your friend’s day. When you plan your outing, just keep in mind that alcohol can worsen the affects of depression.

I spent one of the best evenings since being diagnosed with depression with my husband and a friend. We got free educator’s tickets to see All’s Well That Ends Well at the Shakespeare Theater. It required no planning or coordination on my part. It was just a fun, no pressure evening with people I care about.

Things not to say:

  • “We’ve got to get together sometime.”
  • “Go out and have some fun!”
  • “We never see each other anymore.”

9. Take a break before you burn out.

Being around people with depression can make you more vulnerable to depression, too. And it’s no wonder—supporting a friend is hard work! If you can’t be a good supporter, or if you no longer have the time or energy you need to be a good supporter, talk to your friend about it as soon as possible. While it may hurt her feelings, it will prevent the relationship from gradually disintegrating. And it will save her the pain of wondering why you slowly become more distant or avoidant. You may be able to resolve the situation by expressing your own needs and establishing some boundaries. If not, try to help her identify other supportive people in her life before you part ways.

Things not to say:

  • “You think you have problems!”
  • “You only care about yourself.”

10. Step in when things are too much to handle.

It is never a good idea to ignore suicidal thoughts. If your friend seems to get worse or seems to be planning something, ask her if she has any thoughts of hurting herself. Strongly encourage a friend who has begun to think about suicide to seek help immediately. Anyone with the intention of committing suicide who already has a plan is in an emergency situation. If you don’t have anyone else to call and cannot persuade your friend to go to the hospital, call 911 immediately.

I’m very grateful to my husband and mother-in-law for encouraging me to go to the hospital. I was reluctant to go because it meant going several days without seeing my son, but it prevented me from taking myself out of his life forever.

Things not to say:

  • “Get some sleep. You’ll feel better in the morning.”
  • “Don’t be such a drama queen!”

Have you ever been depressed? How have your friends and family been able to support you?

4 responses »

  1. Very insightful! Wish I had read this before my visit. I love you!!!

  2. Alison…I am so appreciative of you and your thoughtful sharing. What valuable insights and practical recommendations. Thank you!


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