How To Support A Friend Struggling With Depression
It’s no big secret that depression will affect every single one of us at some point in our lives: whether we experience it personally, or watch someone that we love go through it. The stats show that 1 million Australian adults deal with depression every year, and 50% of people who develop depression will have an episode before they turn 30.
So what do you do when a friend tells you that they think they might be dealing with depression? How do you deal when a friend seems distant, down or out of character? And how do you look after yourself through it all?
We spoke with Vikki Ryall, who heads up Clinical Services at Headspace.
What to look out for
Depression presents itself differently in every single person, and no two individuals will experience it the same way. With the conversation around mental health beginning to change in Australia, a friend may let you know that they have been working through a tough time or dealing with a depressive episode. But if they don’t and you have concerns, Vikki explains that there are a few major signs you can look out for, including:
–A noticeably lowered mood
–Irritability or mood changes (this is a big one for younger people)
–Appetite or weight changes
–Loss of pleasure in things they usually enjoy
–Change in mood during a transition period (after finishing uni, moving out of home or interstate/overseas, a new job, any situation where a big change is being dealt with)
What to say
Knowing what to say to a friend who is dealing with depression is incredibly tough, and it’s important to remember that you don’t need to have all the right answers or advice. As much as you want to help and support them, it’s not your responsibility to take on their depression – all you can do is be there.
“It’s okay to say ‘I’m a bit worried about you.’ It doesn’t mean the person will want to talk, but it shows that you are noticing them, that you’re concerned, and that you care,” says Vikki. Supporting a friend with depression is very much about listening rather than talking, and giving them the space to be heard.
Rather than providing answers or your own anecdotes, try to respond with questions wherever possible. That will allow your friend to open up if they want to, and arm you with information that can help further down the track. You might want to ask them how long they’ve been feeling depressed, if they’ve taken any steps towards treatment, if anyone else knows how they are feeling. Stay non-judgmental, and let them know you are there.
What not to say
According to Vikki, one of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to support a friend is making promises to keep secrets or to keep everything between the two of you. It’s not a healthy situation for anyone involved, and can weigh on the minds of both you and your friend. If depression becomes severe and your friend discusses or mentions self-harm or suicide, that’s when you need to pull in a support network and encourage them to seek out treatment and help services. There’s no need for either of you to feel alone.
It’s also important to try to stay non-judgmental, and remember that depression can be incredibly debilitating. Saying things like ‘you just need to cheer up’ or offering up unsolicited advice can be extremely unhelpful. “It will make the person feel like they aren’t being heard,” says Vikki. “It’s likely they’ve already tried to ‘cheer up,’ and saying that will only make them feel more hopeless.”
Encourage them to gather a network
Gathering a support network is one of the most important steps a person dealing with depression can take. By discussing how they’ve been feeling with you, they’ve already taken the first step by telling someone. But, it’s not enough to just have you on board.
Ask if they would feel comfortable telling any family members or talking with other friends about it, and if they have a partner establish whether they want to include them in their network. Telling people can be a very scary thing for a depressed person, so be gentle and offer what you can: maybe they want you to talk to a family member for them, maybe they aren’t ready to bring other people on board yet, or maybe they would like to seek other help first.
It’s crucial that a mental health professional is included in a support network, alongside a GP and any other health professionals your friend might need. Taking the steps to ask for professional help is often one of the toughest parts of dealing with a mental illness, so try not to get frustrated or annoyed if your friend won’t seek help straight away or if they rebut you completely. But, if you can, encourage them to find someone to talk to in a professional capacity. Offer to help them find the right person, to attend the first few appointments and sit in the waiting room if that will help, and remind them that there’s no shame in finding someone to talk to.
Look after yourself
It’s so, so important that while you are supporting and helping out a friend or loved one who is dealing with depression, you are looking after your own needs at the same time. It’s easy to get weighed down by another person’s needs, and it can lead to you sacrificing your own mental or physical health.
Ensuring there are other people on board is the first big step, but it’s also important to make sure you have loved ones to talk to – and to seek professional help if you need it. “It’s also okay to contact help services yourself to ask how you can help a friend, it isn’t just for people dealing with their own mental health,” says Vikki.
If you or your friend are struggling with depression or anxiety – or if you’re not sure but want to speak to someone – you can reach out to Headspace here, Beyond Blue here and Blackdog Institute here.
Chloe Papas is a journalist and writer based in Victoria. You can find her on Twitter here.