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How to "Be There" for a Depressed Person

So. I’ve talked about things not to say to a depressed person before. People have often asked me how, then, one should go about it instead.

One of the nicest things that ever happen to depressed people is when one of our close friends or family members tells us emphatically that they want to “be there” for us. This is great. Depressives aren’t easy to deal with, and anyone who chooses to do so deserves respect.

However.

There are right ways to go about being supportive, and there are wrong ways to go about it. I’m going to try to illuminate some of the right ways here. Don’t worry, it’s not hard.

  • Be honest and specific about the extent to which you are able and willing to help.
  • If you’re not, one out of two things will happen–the depressed person won’t take you seriously and won’t come to you for help anyway, or they will overestimate the extent to which you can help them, and this leads to extreme frustration for both of you.
  • If you’re very busy most of the time, tell them a specific time when you’re free to talk. This is important because depressed people often feel even worse at the thought of there being nobody available to talk to them, or of people being busier than they are.
  • If you’re available to listen but have no idea what to say in response, tell them that. They might be able to suggest ways to respond, or they might tell you that just listening helps.
  • If you don’t really like hearing depressing things for personal reasons but still want to help, explain that, and offer to help them do things to take their mind off of their depression, such as watch movies or cook together. Sometimes, that helps as much or more than just listening to someone.
  • Be a bit kinder than you would normally be.
    • Depressed people are, for lack of a better word, very fragile. They get upset by things that “normal” people don’t get upset by.
    • This is not the time to make “constructive criticism” or point out mistakes that the person has made. For instance, some depressed people have substance abuse problems. Do not say “You need to stop drinking or else you’ll only get worse.” All that does is make the person feel guilty and ashamed. First of all, you’re (I’m assuming) not a therapist, so you’re not an expert on how to cure depression. Second, if you’d like to make suggestions for improvement, frame them them very carefully. Perhaps, “I’ve noticed that you tend to feel worse after you’ve been drinking. Have you thought about trying to stop?”
    • If this sounds like sugarcoating or handling people with kid gloves, maybe it is. Maybe it seems silly to you. But remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about someone else.
    • In relation to the first point I made, be really sensitive about how you tell the person that you’re busy/otherwise unavailable and can’t talk to them or help them. Don’t just be like, “I have to go to bed now. Bye.” Say something like, “I need to go to bed because I’m really tired, but I hope you feel better and I’ll talk to you again soon.” Remember that unless you specify that you’re tired but that you wish you could help, a depressed person is likely to assume that you’re just trying to give them the slip. Try not to be offended by this. It’s not because you haven’t been a good enough friend; it’s just how their brain works.
  • Remember that there are many ways to help.
    • If you’re not comfortable listening to someone talk on and on about really sad things, that’s perfectly understandable and okay. If you still want to help them, there are other ways.
    • As I mentioned earlier, one thing that really helps depressed people is getting them out of bed/off the couch and doing something. Offer a pleasant but engaging activity that doesn’t require too much social interaction or new situations–watching movies, cooking, exercising, going to see a lecture or exhibit, going to a small social gathering (NOT a huge party with lots of drinking), taking a walk, going shopping, etc. If you’re both students and have a lot of homework/studying to do, you can invite the person to do that with you. Even if you’re not actually interacting, it’s nice to be around people.
    • You can also help in very small but practical ways. Get notes for them if they miss class (but encourage them to try to go next time), tell mutual friends that they’re going through a hard time and need extra support, help them search for a therapist or psychiatrist, that type of stuff.
  • Don’t make it about you.
    • I can’t stress this enough. Honestly, the shit that can come out of a depressed person’s mouth is pretty ridiculous at times. I’m obviously not proud to admit this, but I have occasionally been known to scream (electronically or otherwise) things like “FINE GO AHEAD AND HATE ME” and “I GUESS YOU WON’T CARE IF I DIE” at people.
    • This, I’m sorry to say, is just part of the package. Depression really fucks with people’s ability to process things rationally. Although there are things you can do to avoid such a reaction (see “Be a bit kinder than you would normally be,” above), it may still happen, and it’s not your fault. Don’t make this about yourself, don’t react defensively, don’t accuse the person of not appreciating your friendship.
    • If they say something that really does bother you, it’s perfectly fine to bring it up when they’re calmer and less upset. But don’t do it while they’re freaking out about something.
  • Be really careful if you’re communicating via texting or the internet.
    • The reason I say this is because this is where I’ve most often seen things go terribly wrong. Written communication has a way of seeming much more curt, rude, and inconsiderate than it really is. Depressed people are already overly sensitive to things like this, so communicating in writing can make it even worse.
    • That’s not to say that you should rule texting and the internet out entirely. Just take care to make up for the lack of body language. You can’t smile reassuringly, touch someone on the shoulder, or hold their hand over the internet. So if you’re saying something that can be interpreted ambiguously, be very cautious. With depressed people, there’s a certain Murphy’s Law–if it can be interpreted negatively, it will be.
    • Some ways to combat this are to use emoticons to help convey emotion, to express things more clearly, and to ask the person how he or she is interpreting what you’re saying as a way of checking in.
  • Try not to offer advice unless they ask for it.
    • This is a big one. I’ve written before about the tendency of people to want to “fix” others by immediately offering them advice, but this really fails when it comes to depressed people.
    • First of all, depression is different from ordinary sadness in a qualitative, not quantitative, way. In other words, it’s not “more” sadness, it’s a “different” sadness. What works for you when you’re feeling a bit down probably isn’t going to be what works for someone with a clinical disorder. This is why all those entreaties to “just put yourself out there!” and “just smile!” and “just get some sleep!” really, really fall on deaf ears when it comes to depressed people. Trust me, we’ve tried all of that, and much more.
    • Second, advice probably isn’t what they’re looking for (unless they tell you so). When people are upset, not only are they not in the right frame of mind to evaluate your suggestions accordingly, but what they probably really want is for someone to agree that things are hard for them and to sympathize with that. In other words, don’t be like, “Oh, that’s no big deal, you can just try x, y, and z.” Try “Wow, that must be really hard for you, but I believe that you’ll get better.”
  • Never ever make the person feel guilty or indebted for needing your help.
    • This is rarely done maliciously; I think it’s usually by accident. Sometimes people who are close to a depressed person become frustrated or resentful, which is natural. However, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean you should necessarily express it–at least not in the way that most people do.
    • If you find that helping the person is taking up too much of your time and energy, that’s absolutely a fair conclusion to come to. But that doesn’t mean you have the right to blame the depressed person for it. You choose how to spend your time, not they.
    • The correct way to address this, in my opinion, is to explain calmly that you feel like you’ve been putting too much of yourself into helping this person. Explain that, since you’re not a therapist, you can’t devote as much time and energy as the person might need. Clarify that you still care about them, but that you need to focus on yourself more.
    • The reason this is so important is twofold. First of all, depressed people can’t help the fact that they need support. They just do. Making them feel ashamed of that does no good. Second, some depressed people are suicidal, and one of the biggest causes of suicidality is feeling like a burden to others. This is why you should try not to make a depressed person feel like a burden to you.

    So there you go. I’m sure there will be a followup post to this because it’s such a big issue for me. Feel free to ask if you have any questions!

    Comments

    1. Georgina says

      This is really really really fantastic. I’m suffering from dysthymia, and just recently I had my closest friends do pretty much the exact opposite of everything on this list – and everything I need them to be doing, which of course was the worst possible thing for them to do (even if they thought they were helping). Now I just need to send them a link to this.

      • says

        Thank you, I’m really glad you liked it! And I’m sorry to hear about your dysthymia. Sending your friends a link to this post (or others like it; there are many) might be a good idea, because that way they’ll see that you really aren’t just making this stuff up.

    2. says

      It can sometimes be very hard to get depressive people to talk (about their problems, or for that matter anything else). They’d rather keep to themselves pretending that their problems have no solution and that no one can possibly help them out. This needless to say perpetrates a vicious cycle of more depression.
      Shouldn’t a strategy to deal with them take this into account?

      • says

        That’s very true. Here I was addressing a specific subset of depressed people who do want to talk about their problems but are often met with inappropriate responses when they’re doing so. I think this is most common with younger people (like me) who are very open, but whose friends haven’t really reached the level of maturity at which they’re capable of responding properly.

        Now that you’ve mentioned that, I think I might write a future post that specifically addresses how to respond to people who are very closed-off about their problems. It’s kind of a separate beast, so to speak.

        • says

          Ok, thanks for clarifying. Yes there could be people in this situation with different levels of inclination to talk. You have done a very good job of highlighting the strategies relevant for those who belong to your target group.

    3. says

      I’d like to add to your list, if I may.

      In my personal experience, I’ve found that it helps if support is framed as mutual. For example, when supporting someone who is depressed, they will often say to me something like “I feel like such a burden, ” or “all I ever do is talk about my problems”. I’ve noticed that when I call upon them for the same kind of support, and verbally emphasize how the support is mutual, they feel much better about the situation. It’s more like co-counseling, and more empowering because they know they are giving back and investing in a two-way relationship.

      • says

        This is a really good point that I can definitely sympathize with. In fact, some of my relationships and friendships have actually ended because I felt like 1) I was a burden and 2) the other person just didn’t really need me. Nowadays I look for friends who also want someone to listen to them sometimes.

    4. Riley says

      I’ve been reading your wordpress and enjoy your pieces very much. I was wondering if you had any suggestions on how to find someone to talk to (that is not a therapist). I’m not comfortable talking to one yet and in general I’d prefer to talk to someone who is a friend first. However, the friends I have don’t know how to respond/help or in another instance we ended up frustrated with each other. For the time being, I’m coping with helping myself, but I feel soon I’ll be needing something more than just me. I was wondering if you had any general advice on finding someone to talk to or any thoughts on that.

      • says

        I’m sorry to hear your friends aren’t being very helpful. The best option for you might be to talk to someone that you don’t know too well, but that you know is open to helping people. For instance, I’m often approached by people I know only marginally who’ve read my writing or know of my work on campus and correctly assume that I wouldn’t mind listening to them.

        If you don’t know of anyone like that, there are resources available that try to provide a similar service. If you’re a college student, try to find out if your school has a peer counseling/listening service. Many schools have them. Usually it means you’d go talk to a fellow student who’s been trained to be a good listener and to be supportive to people like you.

        If that’s not available either, see if you can think of an older person outside of your family whom you trust. It could be a religious leader of some sort, an advisor if you’re at school, a friend’s parent that you’ve gotten to know, etc. These people aren’t always perfect by any means, but they’ll probably have more experience with helping others and therefore be more willing to listen.

        In any case, please feel free to contact me anytime at mogilevsky[at]northwestern.edu. Thanks for reading, and feel better soon. :)

    5. Prettyreckless says

      My boy friend is going through a depression but we are in a long distance relationship and I don’t know how to help. He keeps pushing me away and actually broke up with me to later say he didn’t mean it and now he says he’s confused because he doesn’t feel anything- he feels empty. At first I didn’t see the signs so I acted all wrong but then I started to notice he blames himself for everything, even little trivial things, he takes everything the wrong way, he says he is worthless and says I have so much going for me that I deserve something better and he doesnt want to drag me down. He was supposed to come visit and we were going on a trip but he says he doesn’t know if he should come because he doesn’t want to hurt me- I told him that even if it was as friend I wanted him to come. I don’t know what else to do to help. I started listening to him but being far apart is hard. Any suggestions? How many times should I write him and offer support?

      • says

        I’m sorry to hear about your boyfriend. He’s lucky to have someone like you who wants to be supportive, though.

        Unlike many people, I don’t necessarily think that couples should break up and deal with it on their own if one of them is depressed. I would never have made it into treatment and on my way to recovery if it weren’t for my ex-boyfriend. It might be a good idea for you and your boyfriend not to make any major decisions about your relationship while he’s depressed because he’s probably feeling very pessimistic, and that’s affecting his decision-making.

        In terms of supporting him, there’s really no single right way to do it. Call/contact him as much as you feel comfortable, without feeling like you’re at his beck and call. Or ask him how often he’d like to talk.

        Being apart definitely makes it hard, but one thing I think helps is being on Skype together while doing your work (I’m assuming you two are in school) or otherwise doing other stuff. It feels more like a regular relationship that way, and it gives him an opening to talk to you if he wants to without feeling like he’s bothering you by calling you just for that reason, if that makes any sense. The difficulty I always faced when I was depressed and in a long-distance relationship was having to call and basically be like, “I’m really upset right now and need you to talk to me.” Chances are he feels that way, too.

        One more thing that could help is if you have an email correspondence with him. Emails are kind of underrated these days, but it’s really nice to check your email and find a pleasant surprise there. It’ll aso give your boyfriend the opportunity to put his thoughts into writing, which is helpful for a lot of people.

        Anyway, I hope some of that is useful. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need more help. :)

        • Prettyreckless says

          Thank you so much for the reply. I have just been feeling a little blue and helpless lately because I don’t know how to help and sometimes the things he does and says are hurtful, but I know it’s his depression and not him so I’m trying to cope and not take it personal.

          • says

            You’re welcome!

            When he says things that are hurtful, it might be a good idea to let him know that in as value-neutral a way as possible. For instance, “I understand that you’re feeling really down right now, but I feel hurt when you say that.” And make sure he knows that you feel hurt because you care, not because you don’t.

      • caringandconcerned says

        This is a big one.
        I’ve got a similar situation.
        And what I struggle with is “am I texting too often, and being more of a badger?”
        I mean the last thing I want to do annoy the person.
        Before the major onset, we used to text at least every few hours.
        Then days started to pass, and I probably texted too much out of worry.
        I check in at least once a week to see how they are doing, but want to text daily.

        Sometimes a long time passes before there is any kind of response.
        There is almost never a response to questions/statements like “how are you?”

        Any advice would be so helpful.

    6. Julia says

      My depressed boyfriend broke up with me 6 months ago, saying that I was too good for him and that he can’t be in a relationship because of his depression. He said he felt guilty for not paying attention to me, and he thought he was making me depressed also. We have not seen each other more than a few times since, but have maintained correspondence for the entire 6 months we’ve been broken up. As of 6 weeks ago, he still had feelings for me, and I told him I still had feelings for him also. He doesn’t think he can be in a relationship until he gets his depression figured out though. When I know he’s going through a hard time, I make sure to let him know that I still care about him, and that he can talk to me anytime he wants. Lately though, he has not been responding to my texts or e-mails, or if he does, it is days later and he says very little. After he has come out of previous depressions, he has been very grateful that I was there for him and apologizes for “taking it out on” me, but this time seems different. I’ve been sending him one or two texts a day for the last week just to ask him how he’s doing or ask him to spend some time with me, and he’s only responded once by telling me that he’s having ups and downs, feels useless, and he doesn’t think there is anything I can do to help. I haven’t heard from him since, and I’m worried I’m going overboard with the texting. Should I back off for a while and wait for him to get better on his own, or should I continue to send him things and offer my support? Am I making things worse by contacting him? Sometimes I worry that he just doesn’t want me in his life anymore. Any advice would be so helpful and appreciated! I just want to do what’s best for him. Thank you!

    7. Chels says

      Have you got any advice for someone trying to help someone cope with depression but they don’t want to talk about it, and are distancing themselves from friendships and unable to have any emotional intimacy. How do you handle that?

    8. joe says

      my friend wants to pursue further studies but because of family problems he is really depressed. need help for him!

    9. says

      Hello, my son has been depressed for 10 years or more. He has isolated himself: stays at home, has no friends, does not work, lost interest in activities – mostly makes elaborate excuses as to why he cannot do the simplest most basic things, is easily agitated, gained weight, has a drinking problem, paranoid, says hurtful things and oh the list goes on. I have tried to follow advise I found on line and been supportive, still he refuses to get help either by speaking with someone or taking medication. He is so lonely and sad and in complete denial. It is difficult to talk with him about anything because he is argumentative, negative and unaware of how much fear he has. The impact on me is great because I feel his pain deeply and experience some inability to move forward. what do you suggest?

    10. caringandconcerned says

      If you just found out that someone had passed away and are really down about it.
      Should you tell your depressed friend that you need their support? or would this just make them withdraw even more?

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