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!