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10 Ways to Help a Friend with Depression & 5 Things Not to Do

Helen Brown. PhD, MSc, PGDip, BSc.
A young man holds his friend's hand for moral support.
Depression is a serious mental health condition. Worldwide, at least 264 million people experience depression—a low mood that continues for a prolonged period which can significantly impact day-to-day life.

Mental Health America (MHA) found rates of people with moderate to severe depression was on the rise throughout 2020. And since the pandemic, the MHA recorded the highest rates of people reporting frequent thoughts of suicide and self-harm since screening began in 2014. 

It’s more important than ever to look after our mental health and support those around us as best we can, but it can sometimes be difficult to know how to help a loved one with depression. 

To make this a little easier, we’ve outlined 10 ways you can help a friend with depression and 5 things to avoid.

If someone you know is considering suicide, urge them to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. 

1. Listen

When someone we love is struggling, we naturally want to try and make them feel better. We might jump into proactive mode and try to solve the problem for them. But listening is one of the best ways in which we can support someone with depression. In a sense, this takes some of the pressure off of us saying the “right” things or offering answers or advice that we just don’t have. 

Show a loved one you’re listening actively—keep eye contact, pay attention to what they’re saying, and validate their feelings. Many people experiencing depression can find it difficult to talk about their experiences, so allowing your friend the space to communicate their thoughts and feelings without interruption will be appreciated. 

2. Help them get support

Choosing to start therapy or medication is a deeply personal decision, and it’s one that everyone needs to come to on their own. It’s not your responsibility to push your friend to seek help if they don’t want to, but you can talk to them about how they’re feeling and encourage them to get support. Letting your friend know that it’s okay to ask for help if they need it can empower them to make that decision when the time comes. 

You could also ask if there’s anything you can do to help. Your friend may ask for your support as they reach out to their doctor or look for a therapist. You may also be able to offer information, helpline numbers, or resources they can access in their own time. If your friend is interested in seeking online therapy, as many people currently are during the pandemic, here’s a list of the top 10 online therapy services available right now.

3. Help them feel good about themselves

Depression is often associated with negative thoughts and feelings about oneself. One way you can help your friend feel better is to acknowledge their successes. Have they achieved one of their goals this week? It could be as simple as going to the grocery store, going for a walk, or prioritizing their wellbeing in another way. Whatever it is, without being patronizing, you can recognize that they are making positive steps forward and congratulate them on their victories. 

Another way to boost their self-esteem is to remind them of their wonderful qualities and strengths, perhaps using a specific example of when they have overcome a challenge, made you laugh, or been a great support to others. 

4. Educate yourself on depression

Many people without first-hand experience of depression don’t feel equipped to support someone going through it. Your friend may also not have the emotional bandwidth to explain to you what depression is, so it can be a relief for them if you’ve done your research. 

At Calmerry, an online therapy platform, you'll find an abundance of resources about the different types of depression, symptoms, and treatments, all of which can help you feel more confident speaking to your friend about how they’re feeling. However, remember that although there may be common symptoms of depression, everyone’s experience is unique.

5. Be mindful of boundaries and balance 

Although it might be tempting to do everything you can to make life easier for your friend, it’s important to empower them to look after themselves too. Ask your friend what they would like help with before making assumptions. 

Setting boundaries can be very positive for you as well. For example, there may be certain days of the week that you have too many other demands, or perhaps you need to carve out some time for yourself, so you’re in a better place to support your friend. 

6. Be open to talking about depression 

Sadly, mental illness is still stigmatized in many cultures, and for some people, depression may feel like a taboo subject. If you’re open to talking about difficult feelings and thoughts, this can be hugely reassuring for your friend. By being open and non-judgmental, you provide a safe space for your friend to speak freely. 

Of course, you don’t need to force the issue. Your loved one may be comfortable talking about their experiences, but it might not be quite the time or place. Being there for them when they’re ready to talk and letting them know that it’s a safe topic of conversation is enough. 

7. Be patient

There’s no time limit for recovery from depression. It’s a complex condition, and for many people, depression may come and go throughout their lifetime. Accepting this may help you let go of an imagined endpoint and stop feeling useless or frustrated if your friend doesn’t get better. 

Try to be compassionate and patient with them—they want to heal too. If they’re being impatient with themselves and feel like they should be recovering quicker, modeling patience and understanding for your friend may encourage them to be more self-compassionate too. 

8. Practice empathy

Empathy is about relating to someone else’s emotional experiences and perspectives. Even though it may be difficult, try to imagine how it would feel to be coping with depression and how you would like people to support you. 

Are there times in your life where you’ve struggled and appreciated the kindness of others? You could try to empathize with specific feelings your friend expresses, like sadness, guilt, or loneliness. Listen attentively, show warmth, and acknowledge their experiences. 

9. Look after yourself 

Supporting others can drain your emotional resources, and it’s crucial to top-up your reserves through self-care. Make time for yourself and look after your needs first. 

Perhaps you can reach out to another friend for support or contact a helpline for friends and family of people experiencing mental health problems. It’s also important not to put up with any kind of abuse or manipulation from your friend. Even though they may be going through a hard time, you do not have to excuse bad behavior. 

10. Stay in contact  

Staying in regular contact with your friend can help them feel supported and less alone, especially if they’re finding it hard to reach out to others. Even if it’s just a text message before bedtime or a quick call to see how they’re feeling each day, it lets them know you care and that they’re on your mind. 

Staying in touch can also help you identify any warning signs of worsening depression or suicidal thoughts or intentions. If your friend is suicidal, or you’re concerned they may harm themselves or are in danger, stay with them and contact emergency services or go to an emergency room as soon as possible. If you’re not able to do this, you or your friend can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Things not to do

1. Problem-solving or “fixing” 

Depression is not a problem to solve, and it can be unhelpful to make people feel like if they just fixed a few things, they’d feel better. Telling people to focus on the positives, or feel grateful about what they have, could make them feel worse. Treatment for depression often requires therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, but everyone is different. 

2. Downplaying or dismissing their experiences

It’s important to validate your friend’s experiences. Even if their feelings or worries may seem trivial or disproportionate to you, they are very real for your friend. Try not to downplay what they’re going through by saying things like “We all have bad days” or “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Give them your attention and take their concerns seriously. 

3. Giving advice 

We can all fall into the trap of offering unsolicited advice from time to time. Even though you may only be trying to help, offering advice, such as recommending your friend start eating better, or getting out of the house more, may backfire—you don’t need to provide the answers. 

4. Being critical or judgmental

There’s a good chance your friend is already quite hard on themselves, so try not to pile further criticism onto their plate. Avoid blaming or judging your friend or dismissing their experiences as trivial. If you’re struggling to understand what they’re going through, seek out some information about depression in your own time. 

5. Giving up 

Sometimes you may feel as though your friend is pushing you away or making you feel like you’re not of any help to them. Try not to take it personally, blame yourself, or give up on them. Even though it can be tough, keep talking to your friend, spending time with them, and encouraging them to seek help. 

References:

1. 6 ways to help a friend with depression or anxiety [Internet]. Au.reachout.com. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://au.reachout.com/articles/6-ways-to-help-a-friend-with-depression

2. 6 Do’s and Don’ts for Supporting Someone Who Has Depression [Internet]. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/6-dos-and-donts-for-supporting-someone-who-has-depression/

3. How to Help a Depressed Friend: 15 Do’s and Don’ts [Internet]. Healthline. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.healthline.com/health/how-to-help-a-depressed-friend#warning-signs

4. Depression: Supporting a family member or friend [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression/art-20045943

5. What to Do If You Think a Coworker Is Depressed | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness [Internet]. Nami.org. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.nami.org/Blogs/NAMI-Blog/August-2019/What-to-Do-If-You-Think-a-Coworker-Is-Depressed

6. Helping someone with depression [Internet]. Mind.org.uk. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/depression/for-friends-and-family/

7. The State of Mental Health in America [Internet]. Mental Health America. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://mhanational.org/issues/state-mental-health-america

8. Depression [Internet]. Who.int. 2021 [cited 10 July 2021]. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression

Helen Brown. PhD, MSc, PGDip, BSc.
Helen Brown holds multiple degrees and diplomas in psychology, including a PhD from the University of Bath and MSc with Distinction from University West of England. She also has many years’ experience as a researcher and writer in the fields of mental health and counselling, wellbeing research and positive psychology interventions, organizational and occupational psychology, and human-computer interaction.

Natural Intelligence does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or your local emergency number immediately.