Sunday, November 24, 2013

Mental Health 106 - How do you talk to a friend who has depression?

How do you deal with a friend who has depression?  There are no easy answers, and it can feel like a minefield with no "safe" path at times.  I've known a few people who've had depression – and I'm lying if I say I always deal well with them.  Sometimes you click with someone who has depression, and sometimes it’s just impossible.  The later has happened to me a couple of times, and feels like I've failed that individual, but still ...

When I talked about Pip and her revelation about not only her dad’s terminal illness, but the unpleasant nature of her relationship with him, I talked about feeling over my head.  But the important thing to do is to really not bale out and abandon your friend, but do the best you can.  Your friend needs someone who is patient and understanding.  Even if they’re going to a counsellor, they need support outside of that.

A friend of mine from school lost her baby in the final phases of pregnancy in the last year, and that was dreadful.  But she told me what made a bad situation unbearable was that everyone didn't know what to say to her anymore, so people started avoiding her.  She felt a social leper at what was already the lowest time of her life.

For myself when dealing with someone like that, I tend to try and say something – and learned if you are going to give in to paralysis because you can’t find the “right words”, you’re going to be silent an awful amount of the time.  The important thing is you make an effort and try and say something, but most of all you listen.

As I've said, I've had depression – and people tried to be kind and nice and friendly to me.  But to be honest I was in such a bad place the time, I was just hurtful back to them.  And I feel mean about that now, but also understand it was out of my control a little at the time.  To be honest, sometimes when you’re depressed, as dumb as it sounds, you just want to push everyone away.  Even the people who want to help.

For myself depression was the reason I behaved that way, but it’s not an excuse or get out of jail card.  When I dealt with it, I did my best to rebuild those relationships that had been damaged.  But I was so thankful for those people in my life that I couldn't keep away.  And yes - I did apologise for my behaviour.

When you try to deal with someone with depression – you have to have patience.  You have to understand to an extent that some of what comes out of their mouth is their depression talking, not the person you know to be your friend.  And that’s hard.

Sometimes they’ll snap at you, and you need to back off a bit.  Sometimes they’ll ask you to just leave them alone, and sometimes you have to.  Give them time, give them space, but don’t be too proud to come back, because they’re hurting, and despite what they might say, they need you.

Being friends with someone who has depression is hard – I think to get through it you need to be really good friends.  Because the depression will test it to it’s limits believe me.  I think I'm learning I can’t just “be there” for a comrade who is a fellow sufferer who I only vaguely know in passing – there has to be the cement of genuine friendship prior to depression hitting, because it just won’t last otherwise.

The New Zealand depression website has some great advice for do’s and don’t for supporting a friend with depression, and I'm going to repeat them here,


  • Spend time with them
  • Listen rather than talk – let them tell you how it is for them
  • Learn about depression - how it is treated and what you can do to help recovery
  • See yourself as part of their support team
  • Understand how depression is affecting their daily life
  • Help the person to recognise and find ways of dealing with things that are worrying them
  • Help and encourage them to lead a healthy life, to exercise and to do things they enjoy
  • Support and encourage them to keep getting whatever support or treatment is offered
  • Take any thoughts of suicide seriously – it’s okay to talk about it. Don’t leave someone alone if they feel unsafe. Contact a health care provider or a crisis phone line.


  • Tell them to 'snap out of it' or 'harden up'. People cannot 'will' themselves better from moderate or severe depression
  • Encourage excess alcohol and drug use as a coping strategy - it can make things worse
  • Avoid them – they already feel isolated and this can make their depression worse
  • Assume the problem will just go away
  • Judge or criticise them for what they’re going through
  • Lose hope - they need you to believe they will get through this
  • Give unhelpful advice – for example, 'just think of people who are worse off’.

And of course, support doesn't just end when they seem to be back to normality.  With Richard, who worked for me, I would do regular catch ups with him to find out how things were going with him.  The idea was to check in on his mental health so I could ask him “do you think you need to go the doctor again?” if he was having problems.

He did indeed have a couple of wobbles as you’d expect – but he told me he found it useful to have someone within work to “talk about this stuff” to, and to sound out his emotional state.

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