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).

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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.

(Dr. Thompson)

 

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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 So it’s not unusual for those cultural guidelines to translate into men becoming angry and withdrawn when they are depressed and for women to have more open expression of sadness and despair.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.

(Dr. Stege)

 

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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.

(Dr. Stege)

 

photo by jamie beck for a cup of jo

 

 


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.

(Dr. Stege)

 

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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.

(Dr. Stege)

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.

(Dr. Thompson)

 

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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.”

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10 comments
  1. 1
    Kelly Colchin | August 5, 2015 at 9:44 am

    What a great and helpful piece, Molly. Thanks so much for writing it!

    Reply
  2. 2
    Kate | August 5, 2015 at 10:47 am

    This post resonates with me. My roommate in college, also a close friend at the time, had some serious issues with depression. Typically a sharp, funny girl who was always the life of the party, she went through a long spell of sleeping all day, barely eating, and feeling incredibly down. Fortunately, she realized that her medication was causing the problem, and was able to make adjustments to get herself “back on track.”

    At the time, I did what I could to lift her spirits, but it never felt like enough – she was still depressed. Later, she told me how much she appreciated me “being there.” It’s helpful to know that even the smallest gestures can be helpful, and beyond that, sometimes you have to let people work things out for themselves.

    Reply
  3. 3
    Rebekah | August 5, 2015 at 11:58 am

    Very timely post for me, as I have a friend who’s more than just blue and I want to be there for him. Even though I’ve struggled with depression myself, it’s always a dance to figure out how to be there for someone else. I appreciated the part about differences in female/male responses, too, and hope I can be a good friend to him without making him feel ‘weak.’ Thanks for writing this!

    Reply
  4. 4
    Jennifer Rose Smith | August 5, 2015 at 12:15 pm

    Thank you so much for this article, Molly. I agree with Dr. Thompson that depression can be psychologically contagious. It’s important to stay aware of that. I’m a sensitive person, so I’m often drawn in to caring about other people’s problems. Moving forward, I hope to perfect the art of being a good listener while also protecting my own positive outlook.

    Reply
  5. 5
    Camille Styles | August 5, 2015 at 2:59 pm

    Such a great post, Molly! It’s so hard to be a supportive friend without getting sucked into a cycle where you end up feeling depressed, too. Especially when you’re a person (like me) who really feeds off others’ moods. This has so many great, practical tips that I will go back to whenever I’m wondering how I can help a friend who’s struggling.

    Reply
  6. 6
    Charlotte | August 5, 2015 at 4:02 pm

    Great information, Molly. So glad for the advice to speak up and express concern if you believe your friend is depressed. How many times do we keep quiet to avoid an uncomfortable moment, but addressing the issue in a caring way can open a door for communication, support and help.

    Reply
  7. 7
    Ken | August 5, 2015 at 7:06 pm

    Best. Post. Ever… Highly informative. Definitely will have to refrence back to this post in the future. Good job Molly!

    Reply
  8. 8
    Kristin | August 7, 2015 at 11:31 pm

    Really important post. I’ve dealt with depression off and on over the past 20 years and the thing that has meant the most has been the times that a friend or family member simply said “I want you to know that I care about you, you are important to me and I’m worried about you.” When you deal with depression, you also learn the difference between acquaintances (they typically disappear when you are not fun to be around) and real friends who stick around and find a way to be supportive without getting overwhelmed by the negative emotions. Trust me when I tell you that no one wants to be or stay in that place, when you are there though, it feels impossible that there is a way out.

    Reply
  9. 9
    Ann | August 9, 2015 at 11:02 am

    Great post! Best tip? “Don’t be afraid to speak up” — yes! Don’t be afraid to approach them and ask them about what’s happening…depression is a very lonely and alone place.

    Reply
  10. 10
    Katie | August 10, 2015 at 7:44 am

    Thanks for sharing! I like tip #5 the best. I think that listening and being there for your friend is such a powerful thing. Just sitting with them or taking a walk is very meaningful. I think sometimes when we’re depressed we just want to feel normal again and we’d like to “forget” about it for a bit. Friends who don’t treat you “differently” can be a great distraction and encouragement in those times.

    Reply
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