In my many years of experience with depression, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have a lot of people around me who have not only tried to support me, but have gone out of their way to make sure they’re supporting me in the right way. Not everyone is this lucky. So before I take you through these ways to support someone with depression, understand that by caring to read this at all, you’re already so much more help than so many people.
So many people don’t think depression is real. They judge the person and blame them for their illness. In this post I’m going to presume that you’re none of those things – that you are accepting, non-judging, and your main problem isn’t that you don’t want to help, it’s that you have no idea how.
Here’s eight different ways to do that.
1. Look after yourself first.
Have you ever been on a first aid course? Any kind of first aid course?
The first thing they’ll tell you about responding to an accident is this: you make sure you are safe first. You do not go anywhere near the people in need if you, yourself, will be at risk by doing so. No one is helped by you hurting yourself.
Apply the same thing to supporting someone with depression. It’s one thing to have your own stuff going on, but if you’re not well enough to look after yourself, you’re not well enough to support someone else. In this instance, you’ll help then more by not trying.
2. Talk to them.
If you’re on the internet, you’ve probably heard calls to ‘check in with people’ at some point. And that’s super important. Even if you’re too depressed to respond, just the fact that someone cared enough to ask how you are is amazing.
But don’t just ask how they are. Talk to them. Talk about random things. Talk about stuff that has nothing to do with them or their depression. Right now they probably feel like the only thing in their world is their depression. Giving them even just a few minutes when they realise that’s not the case will be amazing.
And make sure you are initiating conversation with them. Don’t wait for them to do it; they might not be able to.
3. Make your offers of support specific.
Don’t just say ‘I’m here if you need it’. Depression is isolating; in moments of the most need, your general offer might not be remembered, or accessible.
Make your offers of help specific instead. Like offering to bring dinner over, or to come and cook for them. Offering to help them tackle the tidying and cleaning they’ve been struggling with. The moment you make your help more specific, it becomes immediately more accessible – because the onus isn’t on them to think of something they need help with.
Remember that the things they truly need help with might seem small to you. It will be the things like eating and cleaning. Things that you might well do without thinking. Never minimise that experience.
4. Keep inviting them to things.
I know. They’ve said no the past 5 times you asked them. Sometimes they haven’t even responded at all. But. Keep. Inviting. Them.
It’s much like talking to them. The fact that you send that invite? It means so much. And your next invite just might come at a point where they’re ready, and they might be able to say yes, and it might mean a huge leap forward for them. If you don’t keep inviting them? That won’t happen. You’ll never know.
But saying all that, don’t invite them if you don’t want them to come. It’s not fair to them to pretend you do, if you don’t.
5. Learn the crisis hotlines and provide them if they’re needed.
It’s really easy to find the help available in your area with a quick Google. Here’s the thing to know about crisis hotlines though – there are different types depending on where you are. This is often overlooked.
For example, not many people know that you can call the general emergency line (e.g. 999) for your region if someone is in danger of suicide. There are then many hotlines for suicide intervention – often run by charities. There are, similarly, less-urgent hotlines for mental health support.
What you might not know is that in the UK, if your friend or family member is currently receiving help from their NHS Trust, they might have a local crisis line they can call. These go straight to mental health nurses who can offer support remotely. I’ve called these in the past and I really highly recommend them.
6. Be patient with them.
Or to give this step its longer name: be patient with them even if it means taking time off from them.
It’s taken me a long while to learn this, but it’s okay to be frustrated with people you love. It’s normal to, and healthy to. So if you’re struggling with being friends with someone who’s depressed? Step back for a little bit. Go back to them when you’re ready and able to, and understand that the fact that you’re frustrated with them doesn’t make you a terrible person.
We get it. We know it’s frustrating, because it’s frustrating for us 24/7. It might hurt to be abandoned for a little bit, but not as much as that frustration exploding into confrontation would be. So do them and yourself a favour and take a few days off.
7. Offer advice – but the right advice.
You will see a lot of guides that tell you blanket not to offer advice to someone with depression. But then in the same breath, you’ll hear suggestions to gently encourage people to develop habits that will empower them. That’s obviously advice. So what should you do?
My personal answer is that it’s okay to offer advice, but you need to a) make sure that advice is good and b) ensure you’re not forcing that advice upon them.
Obvious forms of bad advice: ‘why don’t you just stop being sad?’. ‘Have you tried just getting up earlier?’. That sort of thing. Anything that minimises their experience is bad. A bit like with offering help, more specific advice is better. Specific advice can actually tackle some things that are awful to say generally, like that question about getting up earlier. Saying “I’ve been trying this new alarm app, I’d recommend it if you struggle with getting up on time” is fine.
Then just make sure, as point B says, that you’re not forcing your advice on them. It’s fine to offer some unsolicited advice, but don’t make it a demand. You want to help them, not to make them feel bad if they can’t take your help.
8. Validate positivity, not negativity.
One of the toughest things about supporting someone with depression is that the closer you are, the more of their depressive thoughts you’ll hear. Thoughts like I’m just an awful person and sometimes I wish I was dead. Listening to those can be tough.
It’s not too hard to avoid validating the worst of those. But some of the smaller ones – the ones that add up – are harder. Thoughts like I’m letting everyone down. If your loved one says this when they’ve failed to turn up for something? I mean yeah, they have let people down. But hearing that will only reinforce their depressive thought patterns. I’m not suggesting you should lie, but you can change how you respond. Say something like “We know what you’re going through and we don’t mind.” – put the emphasis on your care for them.
A small disclaimer here: when they’re doing better, it can also be really helpful to hear the truth. That’s one of the things that makes offering support so hard. Your mileage may vary on this advice.
But don’t just avoid the negative: make sure you reinforce the positive, too. Have they told you about something they’ve achieved? Celebrate it. It’s probably something that seems really small, like having a shower. It’s not small to them. Not at all. Showing that you understand that means so much.
Whatever advice you take from this to empower your support, remember what I said at the start: you’re amazing even just for thinking about it. Thank you for being.
If you want to support my own positive things, you can check out my support page for a few easy ways to do that. It means a huge amount to me, too.