Statistics say that one in four of us has a mental health problem, and one in five will experience depression, so you probably have a friend, relative or colleague who’s affected. You can’t solve your depressed friend’s problems or wave a magic wand, but knowing what to say or do – and what not to say or do – is crucial (as someone with long-term depression, I can swear to this). Say goodbye to awkward silences and be genuinely supportive.
Depression doesn’t discriminate. You can be filthy rich, totally in love, recently promoted, living anywhere in the world, and it strikes. Chemical imbalances, genetics and environmental triggers can all contribute, but this illness still defies logic. The worst year of your life doesn’t automatically leave you clinically depressed, and having a depressed relative doesn’t mean you’ll suffer from the same thing.
Unfortunately, depression lasts for months, if not years, so telling someone to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘start being more grateful’ won’t work; if it did, the NHS would just prescribe gratitude journals. Sufferers are beating themselves up enough as it is, without being told they could reverse their diagnosis if only they tried harder.
One of the most important things you can do is believe someone who says they’re depressed. Share the ups and downs of appointments, assessments and treatment options with them, because the dark clouds don’t clear as soon as they pop a pill or meet a counsellor. There may be long waiting lists for therapy, sometimes a year or more, and weird side-effects from certain anti-depressants, before you find the right balance. In the meantime, be their cheerleader. Research local talking therapies, read advice from mental health charities, give them a lift to the doctor’s surgery, find a peer support group (like Mental Health Mates), or just bring tea and cake after a tough day. Whatever your own beliefs, try not to imply that crazy diets, religion or a few good nights out will cure them.
Starting a Conversation
There’s no need to tell a depressive you know how they feel if the whole illness is alien to you. Remember, being supportive doesn’t require personal experience. Try this: “I’m sorry to hear you’re having a rough time. Do you want to talk about it, or would you prefer we find a distraction, like going for a walk or watching TV?”
Listen – not just to their problems, but to the seemingly little things that bring relief. It’s not good to spend every waking hour analysing your thoughts, especially if you’re having talking therapy, so distraction definitely helps. However, if you never asked how a person’s illness was, and just spent the entire time dragging them to endless activities like a Tiger Mother on a caffeine high, you’d make things worse. Instead, find out what would help them right now. Maybe it’s a weekly coffee date, a box set binge, or even a spa treatment (which is awesome for mentally and physically drained people, BTW). Grand gestures are rarely required; there are plenty of things you can do even if you don’t live nearby, like making a playlist or sending a postcard.
Self-care is a big issue for anyone with a mental health problem, from washing and dressing to their lifestyle choices (sadly, bad boyfriends/girlfriends tend to feature as a side-effect of low self-esteem), but when someone gets the help they need – whether that’s medication, talking therapy or both – you’ll see things improve. In the meantime, remind them why they’re valued and why their inner critical voice is wrong to keep spouting negativity. However, if you’re seriously worried someone is neglecting themselves, hurting themselves or feeling suicidal, do get in touch with people who can help, such as the Samaritans (who can talk to you and also the person with depression), or take them to your local A&E if the situation becomes severe.
But what happens if being there for your friend, relative or colleague becomes too much? Try not to go quiet and effectively ‘ghost’ a depressed person – it reinforces all their negative thoughts about themselves, whilst you’re left feeling like you kicked a kitten. It’s okay to have your own problems to deal with, but be mature about the situation. A tactful ‘it’s not you, it’s me’ talk is better for everyone’s mental health: yours included.
Depression & Everyday Life
Simple knockbacks and last-minute changes could really throw someone with depression. Decision-making often feels paralysing, as though you’re up against a firing line. In scientific terms, depressives often suffer ‘cognitive impairment’, even when in recovery (blame the prefrontal cortex). You might notice they have slower reactions, struggle to concentrate and have trouble with short-term memory. They don’t need to be wrapped up in cotton wool, but give them as much warning as possible if you need to change or cancel plans. That way, the depressed person has enough time to break out a few Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) exercises before those negative thoughts trigger a downwards spiral.
Depressives are often people-pleasers: if you work with one, you might notice them taking on an irrational amount of work in the office or trying to do a coffee round for the entire team single-handedly. Break the cycle of low self-esteem and people-pleasing by making sure everyone pulls their weight equally and personal time is valued just as much as office time. You can also look into the Mental Health First Aid course in England, Northern Ireland and Scotland, and find out what policies your workplace has to promote staff wellbeing.
When things are really bad and a depressive episode hits, sufferers can go quiet on social media and in person. This doesn’t mean they’re rejecting you; sometimes life just gets overwhelming and even answering a text message or a work email feels like a struggle. Keep checking up on them and don’t take it personally. The person you know and love is still there, but they need your support to beat this.