In the last several years, public discussion of mental health and illness seems to have become more common, accepted, and destigmatized. There is so much information and support available for those living with mental illness—in some ways, I’ve learned more about managing my depression and anxiety in the last 18 months online than in my 12 years in therapy—but it seems like there’s less information available on how to care for those we love who are suffering.
Please keep in mind that I am not a mental health professional, and this is not meant to replace professional care or advice. Discovering how to care for those with depression has been personally difficult but extremely rewarding, and I intend these suggestions as a friend-to-friend conversation. Some or most of these are likely not universal and won’t work for everyone. The best thing you can do is be really candid with the people you love who are hurting and give them a comfortable space to try and tell you what they might need from you.
1. It’s Not About You, Even When It Is
It’s natural to feel helpless and frustrated that you can’t do more to help a loved one with depression, but sharing those feelings with them only makes them feel like more of a burden. Instead, vent that frustration to other people. Subscribe to Silk’s Ring Theory: comfort in, dump out. It’s totally normal to need support for supporting someone with depression, but you have to find it somewhere else.
2. Your Advice Is No Good Here
In some of the best advice for caring for a depressed friend, Stephen Fry said, “If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why.” Unless your loved one with depression asks, “what do you think I should do?” please do not offer advice. It probably won’t be anything they haven’t heard before, and people struggling with depression aren’t coming to you for therapy or to have their shit figured out for them. They just need a friend who will be there when they need to vent.
3. Invite The Depression Vampire In
Sometimes, your depressed friend wants to hang out with you so they can scream about how awful they feel. It’s not because we need attention, but because we know you value our wellbeing and want to help us affirm our struggles. But I am a depression vampire; to talk about myself, I need to be invited in. If you simply ask how I’ve been doing, I’ll just say “oh you know, fine.” Please be so explicitly clear that you want us to open up. Logically, those suffering from depression probably know that our loved ones won’t mind if we just start talking about our problems. Nonetheless, depression loves to tell us that our friends are not actually our friends. If you reassure us that we have a place in your life, we can begin to rebuild our trust in the world and our own self-esteem.
4. Give Us The Spotlight
Suffering from depression convinces us that we shouldn’t make space for ourselves. We often feel like we’re shrinking and becoming invisible because we aren’t sure how to verbalize our feelings, or we don’t think we can or should. Let your loved ones with depression into your life, or your home, or your car, so that we don’t feel like we’re disappearing. Make space for us. Let us be the center of attention every once in a while without having to talk about our problems. That way, we can tangibly feel that we exist, we’re real, and we matter.
5. “It’s Not You, It’s Your Depression”
A depressed mini-version of myself isn’t living inside of a larger healthy “real” me. At times, depression can be all that I am. Blaming our behavior on our depression makes us feel disjointed from who we are, so let us be our demons sometimes. Hold us accountable for treating our loved ones badly, but don’t try and disconnect us from the feelings that we have.
6. It’s Okay To Go Away
Unhealthy friendships, where both parties depend on each other without also being able to support each other, make everyone worse off. If you need to step back from supporting your depressed friend for a little while, you should (especially if you’re also depressed). They’ll understand, but please do it gently, compassionately, and not indefinitely. Make it clear you still love them, that you just need some time to take care of yourself, and that you’re still available in case of emergencies and to connect them to other resources if you can’t be that resource in that moment.
Lastly, if you received this article from a loved one who is suffering from depression, remember that it wasn’t to make you feel bad for everything you’ve done for them. Instead, be grateful that they care so much about you and your relationship. Depression makes it hard to talk sometimes, so someone probably sent this to you because it resonated with them and they want you to have the tools to best care for them. I can guarantee whoever sent this to you is a reflective, compassionate person, and they’ll do the same for you when you need it.