How do you talk to a friend who’s struggling with depression? Here are 5 simple tools and tips.
Abel Ibarra was always the type of guy who had a smile on his face. So, when depression began creeping in during his college years at the University of Texas, his friends immediately took notice.
“My mood was completely different,” said Abel in one interview. “I was sad most of the time. I didn’t want to get out. I didn’t want to be around people—and I’m the person who was always around people. I just started feeling not myself, or the person I thought I was, I guess.”
Eventually, Abel to consider suicide, going so far as to write his mother a goodbye note. Thankfully, his friends stepped in.
“I’m in a fraternity, and I remember that one of my fraternity brothers, he called me…They just knew I couldn’t be alone.”
After that, Abel says, he knew he couldn’t do it alone anymore. “That’s when I decided to go into a hospital.”
For Abel, a friend made all the difference. And, according to statistics, friendships and strong relationships really do matter when someone is trying to find their way through depression.
Here are a few ways to simply be there for your friend or family member.
For many people, “going to therapy” has a giant stigma attached to it. Some see it as an admission of defeat; some see it as shameful; some see it as unnecessary. However, for anyone experiencing depression, seeking professional help via therapy and counseling are nearly vital parts of the recovery process. If you decide to talk to your friend or family member about therapy, be sure to emphasize that the decision to seek help is courageous, and there is no judgment at all attached to it. Some providers even provide online help (like Telehealth, provided by the Cohen Clinic). Help them research the best option for them and offer to call and make the appointment.
Stop giving advice.
No matter how much advice and wisdom you have to share, we recommend putting away your impulse to try and find ways to fix the problem.
“Don’t take it personally if we respond negatively to your advice,” said writer and speaker Bill Bernat, who has experienced depression. “I remember all the times I’ve been depressed and how I thought I was doomed in all possible futures and everybody hated me. It didn’t matter how many people told me otherwise; I didn’t believe them.”
Instead, focus on asking open-ended questions and being interested in what they have to say.
Keep activities simple.
Where’s the nearest theater? Many experts recommend spending time with a depressed friend doing simple, uncomplicated, everyday tasks that require little energy on the front end. In particular, going to the movies tends to be one of the easiest and most appealing activities to help someone get out of the house.
Empathize, don’t sympathize.
According to author, psychologist, and researcher Brene Brown, empathy makes people feel understood, whereas sympathy drives disconnection. The difference? Sympathy involves simply feeling sorry for someone. Empathy involves actually trying to understand and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Whereas sympathy usually offers a silver lining (“Well, at least…”), empathy involves listening and saying, “I can’t imagine what I would feel like. That must be really difficult.”
Keep extending invitations.
“Depression doesn’t diminish a person’s desire to connect with other people, just their ability,” said Bill Bernat. Often, someone who is depressed has a hard time working up the energy or desire to say yes to plans or social engagements. They may bail at the last minute, make excuses, or simply say no. Naturally, many friends and family will stop inviting them to things. However, many people in this situation say it helps just to know a friend is thinking about them.
“Depressed people will tell me that just knowing a friend is thinking about them, maybe a friend invited them to go see a play but they’re really not up for it, they say it was nice just to be thought of,” said clinical psychologist Dr. Laura Rosen in one interview. “You’re much less likely to get depressed if you have a good support network, and the more social support you have, the more likely you are to get better.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression and considering suicide, the time to seek help is now. If the threat is immediate, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255). If the risk is not immediate and you are a veteran who would like to begin seeking help, contact a therapist or clinic like the Cohen Clinic or Telehealth to begin the process of overcoming depression and suicidal thoughts.