In the Blog
Here’s how you can help a friend struggling with depression
Illustration: Saul Freedman-Lawson
Good communication is the foundation of any healthy relationship. In an ideal world, we are honest with each other, we talk through our problems, and everything runs smoothly. The problem with that is that it’s not exactly realistic, is it? Often when bad things happen to us, they aren’t that simple. Especially when the thing that’s happening to us is as confusing and exhausting as depression.
The thing about depression is there’s absolutely nothing simple or straightforward about it. Depression lies to us. It convinces us that we are responsible for our mental illness, that our friends and family hate us for it, that we should be ashamed, and that we deserve every single draining minute of it. Sometimes it even straight up tells us that we are faking the entire thing—calling it The Worst would be an understatement. If you’ve ever experienced depression, I’m sure this all sounds familiar to you.
Well, what about if you’ve never experienced depression?
I guess that can make supporting a friend who is struggling with depression seem near-impossible—but with some thoughtfulness and understanding, it doesn’t need to be. If you’re reading this and feeling unsure about how to help someone with depression, here are a few suggestions that can go a long way.
Stop deciding how long someone else is allowed to grieve.
Be patient with us. We don’t know how long it will take us to overcome this. Telling us that we are taking too long to process things is harmful and unproductive. We don’t know how long our emotions will last and we can’t control how overwhelming they’ve become. And while we know you want what’s best for us, you reminding us of how long it’s been bad for us makes us feel really small. There is no normal way to get over things because we all handle our emotions differently. It’s harmful to make someone feel bad for taking “too long” when you’re basing it off of an arbitrarily determined “appropriate” grieving period. Some people take longer to process things and they shouldn’t feel guilty about that.
Be mindful of your word choice.
Language is powerful. Our words impact others and they often have negative repercussions if we aren’t careful about what we say to other people and the way that we word things. This is something we should always be aware of, but especially when speaking to someone with depression. Using words like “psycho” and “crazy” isn’t cool, and it makes us feel pretty bad about ourselves when we hear it coming from the people we trust.
Resist the urge to talk about yourself when a loved one opens up to you about their struggles with depression.
Depression makes it hard for us to talk about what they’re going through and it makes self-love even harder. If we’re eventually able to build up the courage to talk about ourselves, we turn to you for your support and validation. If immediately after confiding in you, you always seem to find a way to make the conversation about yourself, it can make us feel like our issues aren’t important. Even if this is unintentional, your actions can make it difficult for us to be honest with you because your dismissal comes as a form of rejection. Be attentive of this and learn to be mindful of when it’s not your turn to talk. We love you and we want to hear about what’s going on in your life, but sometimes what we need is your validation.
Be there for us as much as you can while still remembering to take care of yourself.
It’s important to remember that just because a friend is depressed, it doesn’t mean that you’re expected to drop everything and become their sole caregiver—you’re not their therapist. The relationship can quickly become toxic if your emotional labour causes you to neglect your own health. Instead, ensure that your friendship is a safe space for both parties by communicating regularly about what each person requires in the relationship and by establishing boundaries accordingly. And if they aren’t already doing so, encourage this person to seek professional health.
It’s okay to admit that you don’t understand what someone else is going through.
We don’t expect you that from you. What we do expect, however, is for you to listen to us. It’s important to remember that just because you haven’t experienced something firsthand, that doesn’t make the experiences of another person any less valid. Do not expect a mentally ill person to go through the emotional labour of explaining depression to you and do not expect a mentally ill person to “justify” the state of their mental health to you. When a loved one tells you that they’re depressed—believe them. From there, let them know that you love them and that you’re there to support them through this.
I spent a long time convincing myself that I was too much and I was in a cycle where I ended up always ruining all of my relationships. I’m trying to learn that while this isn’t true, living with depression makes maintaining relationships incredibly difficult and it takes a lot of work on both ends to make things work. This is something that used to worry me about my ability to sustain loving relationships but what I’m starting to realize is that the right people will learn to understand.