Being a friend to someone with depression can be tricky, and sometimes even just talking with them can be difficult. Of course, that’s not to say you’re having a harder time with their depression than they are, but navigating their mental illness and finding the best ways to help them is a challenge in itself. So how are you supposed to act when your best friend is depressed?
Everybody’s depression is different, and there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, but there are some basic dos and don’ts to help you while you figure out what she needs from you.
1. Listen. Seriously. Seriously, seriously, seriously. If she’s up to talking, listen. Behavior, relationship, and family expert Gail Gross, PhD, says that actively listening to your friend is the number one way to show her that you’re there to support her. “Many times, just being there and listening actively helps a depressed person feel valued, validated, and reconnected to the world, through you,” Gross explains.
2. Ask what you can do to help. Depression could be weighing your friend down to the point where she can’t get out of bed to get a glass of water or be a mother or a friend, and helping with tasks, whether big or small, can be a huge weight off her chest.
“Sometimes you might be asked to organize appointments, transportation, or even assist in changing living quarters or arranging for a caretaker,” Dr. Gross explains. “Ask your friend what he or she needs from you.”
Maybe helping her pick up the phone to call a doctor is what she needs to feel better. Maybe she just wants mac and cheese for dinner. Ask.
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3. Act with consideration … but don’t expect her to. ”Your friend is human and she’s going through a common life experience,” says Perpetua Neo, a doctor of clinical psychology, master of philosophy, and chartered psychologist from Brighton, UK. “Don’t treat your friend like a delicate porcelain vase, but understand that she may be feeling low and unmotivated.”
Neo also adds that it wouldn’t be unusual for your friend to lash out and do things that irritate you or that you don’t understand, but it’s important to learn to not take it personally.
4. Model a stable lifestyle. If possible, Gross recommends acting in a way that will give your friend a sense of stability. “Be what you want to see,” she says. “Try to model a stable lifestyle with a regular schedule for eating, sleeping, and personal hygiene.”
5. Don’t judge or try to “rescue” her. “You can’t rescue her,” Gross notes. “And you shouldn’t try and enable her, either. Don’t play the blame game or be judgmental.”
Gross emphasizes the importance of supporting your friend, not trying to save or cure her. “Depression is an illness, and not one to be taken personally,” she says.
6. Ask before giving advice. Dr. Neo reminds us that depression is different for everyone, and comparing your own (or really any kind of experience) with what she’s going through isn’t going to be helpful.
“Offer your own advice if you think that it’s in your friend’s best interest,” Neo advises. “But ask for permission to give your opinion. If you’ve gone through depression before, offer to share your story. But do not use it as a point of comparison as to who suffered more or is more heroic.”
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7. Create boundaries. Drawing lines between you and your friend is the best way for you to be able to help her without losing your own life.
“Boundaries are necessary for you to comfortably stay engaged,” Gross notes. “It’s easy to get drawn into another person’s life and lose your own, so stay vigilant, stay in touch with your friends, and maintain your own routines, social engagements, and appointments to avoid burnout.”
8. Don’t tell her to “snap out of it.” Telling your friend her depression is all in her head is probably the least helpful thing you could do. “Do not get angry with her and tell her she’s being irrational or remind her of all the things she is lucky to have,” Dr. Neo notes. “It’s never that simple. Your friend is going through a difficult time, and this time will come to pass. Instead, be there.”
9. Let her know she’s not alone. It might be the most basic item on the list, but it also might be the most important.
“Let your loved one know that she is not going through this alone, that you’re there with her, that she is valuable to you, and that if she needs your help, you will be there, if possible,” Gross advises.
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