We’ve all experienced it. We’re going about our business– going to work or school, and then one day we wake up and just don’t quite feel right. Maybe nothing has triggered it, but maybe it’s a bad break-up, a job you’re unhappy in, or just the hard transitions of every day life. For some of us, all it takes is a long run, 9 hours of sleep, a bowl of ice cream. But sometimes it’s more than that. Regardless, depression is an isolating experience, and I’ve often wondered how I can be the best, most supportive friend possible to someone experiencing it. I decided to ask Austin based psychotherapists, Dr. Suzy Stege and Dr. Rick Thompson for how to navigate these sometimes choppy waters (and, full disclosure, I’ve been lucky enough to have both of them as professors in my counseling program, and I can say from experience that they know their stuff…. as well as being some of the most all-around inspiring people I know).
1) Identify if your friend is just going through a time of “feeling blue” or experiencing true depression.
I often see depressed people getting grouchy and complain of fatigue, or illnesses that to them seem so big but are really just the sniffles or a body strain. They focus so much on themselves and their troubles. I called it the “sand in the bathing suit” people. With depression, the sadness is so profound that the person cannot get joyful no matter what good is happening. They are flat in the face of joy and peace. Sometimes “the blues” person can smile and get a better feeling, but a depressed person cannot. Red flags are many, such as sleep and eating difficulties, complaining with no resolution in site… and just a foreboding look at life.
2) Remember that men and women process depression differently.
Boys are often schooled to tough things out and girls are more frequently than boys given the latitude to express what they are feeling. So it’s not unusual for those cultural guidelines to translate into men becoming angry and withdrawn when they are depressed and for women to have more open expression of sadness and despair. Women still outnumber men in seeking psychotherapy for depression, and I think that’s because of the persistent cultural perception that depression is somehow weakness.
3) Don’t be afraid to speak up.
I think we have to say something. What we say needs to be brief and specific and to the point and not said very often. “I’m worried about you–you have seemed very sad and quiet to me over the past month or so” or “I’m concerned–it seems as if you have been pulling back from your friends since Christmas.” Best done, we say what we have to say and listen to what our friend has to say and then (in the absence of strongly disturbing behavioral changes) let it go for a couple of weeks before we say anything else. If we’re still worried, we can approach it again then.
4. Be there to listen.
IF you have the sort of relationship with the friend that allows you to talk about difficult topics openly, you can ask if there are things she knows work for her, even a little bit, when she is depressed. You can (without preaching or prescribing) share things that have worked for you, like therapy or exercise or meditation or writing. You can offer to partner with her to help her find a therapist or go for walks or anything else that you can reasonably do. You are not taking over her recovery–you are offering a tangible way that you can be present for her.
That said, we have to remain very aware of our limits in a situation where someone is stuck. We cannot haul them out of the depression singlehandedly.
5. Be the kind of friend you would want to have if YOU were feeling depressed.
If it is a friendship that you cherish and want to maintain, then staying present in the friendship is the best thing. I have talked with many depressed clients who recognize that people they considered their good friends have pulled back from them because of their depression, saying things like “I just want someone I can have fun with” or “You are just too much for me.” There are certainly times when, for our own mental health, we have to draw boundaries/set limits about the length of telephone calls or other contact with a depressed friend. But it is possible (if difficult) to set boundaries and still convey our love and respect for the friend.
Staying in a friendship could require that the friend talk to the therapist or doctor about the mood difficulties and stay away from giving advise or mental health help in any way. try to take them out for very short visits and get them back home when you begin to feel depressed too. depression is psychologically contagious so have brief visits and do not get caught in the paradoxical thinking. depressed people can be selfish and that can drain a friend.
It’s important to remember that we ALL go through hard and difficult times, and sometimes those times can be “fixed” by time with friends and family, a yoga class, or a weekend vacation. But there are other, more severe times, and I think it’s important to be gentle with ourselves and our friends when they are experiencing the ebb and flow of life. I think Hubert Humprey said it best when he said “The greatest healing therapy is friendship and love.”