How To Help Your Friend If They Have Depression
The Debrief: 'Though your mate might want to shut themself away (it’s the horrible nature of depression) and your first instinct might be to get frustrated, this will be a time when they need your help.'
With 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem at some point in their lives, the most common being depression, it’s likely that one of your friends will suffer from the condition. And though your mate might want to shut themself away (it’s the horrible nature of depression) and your first instinct might be to get frustrated, this will be a time when they need your help and support the most.
So how do you go about avoiding saying or doing something that will make them feel worse?
What causes depression?
Clinical depression isn’t just ‘a mood’ – it’s a real illness, with real and often scary symptoms, and a range of triggers. ‘We still don’t really understand what causes it,’ Dr Paul McLaren, consultant psychiatrist at the Priory, Hayes Grove, says. ‘It seems a lot of people have a genetic vulnerability to depression, or that particular stresses, such as losing your job or a bereavement can set it off.’
PR Lucy, 25, said her depression was triggered by a catalyst of stressful events. ‘I’d just finished university and was jobless, so had to move home. My parents split, my granddad, whom I was very close to, died and I broke up with my boyfriend. I had to adjust to a lot of changes at once.’
What signs should I look out for in my friends?
Rachel Boyd, information manager at the mental health charity Mind, says sufferers often close themselves off from others. ‘If your friend keeps cancelling on you, making excuses or doesn’t come to social events they used to enjoy, it can well be that they’re depressed.’
There are physical symptoms with depression too, one of the most common being extreme tiredness. This is another factor that can cause your pals to avoid leaving the house in favour of hiding under the covers.
Changes in body language are another sign. ‘People with depression often give out non-verbal signals,’ Dr McLaren says. ‘Their facial expressions change, they may walk with a stooped posture and have slower movements.’ If your friend is doing this, it might be time for a gentle chat about how they’re feeling.
How can I help my depressed friend?
Boyd says the best thing you can do is to just be there for the person. ‘Talk to them in a calm way, and let them know you’re thinking of them, while letting them know they can speak to you about their feelings once they’re ready to.’
Charity worker Hattie, 25, has suffered from bouts of severe depression since she was 15. She credits her close friends for helping her through. ‘They’re always there to listen, which is amazing. Sometimes they’ve come over and listened to me for hours, which I know can be hard for them as what I’m saying can be illogical and repetitive.’
If your mate has depression, they can neglect looking after themselves, such as eating properly or doing household tasks. Offering help with this can be a massive support. ‘I moved house over the summer, but this co-incided with depression so severe I could barely get out of bed,’ Hattie says.
‘My friends brought over meals I could freeze and some of them even helped my husband with unpacking our boxes from the move. This made me feel a lot more on top of things, and removed a lot of the stress.’
Although your friends may be skipping nights out or disappearing from the Whatsapp group, it’s important to keep them included. ‘My friends stopped inviting me to things, which really hurt,’ Lucy says. ‘A lot of them made me feel me like I wasn’t contributing much to the group when I was out either, as I was so unhappy. I ended up losing contact with a lot of them, which made things worse.’
Even if you’re frustrated at your mate’s constant cancellations, try your best to avoid getting pissed off. It’s not their fault – depression is so unpredictable that even if they’re fine to come out one day, they won’t necessarily be the next. Changing your plans so you visit them, if they feel up to it, instead of going out for dinner and drinks is another great way of showing you care.
‘My mates did this and told me it’s because they just wanted to see me,’ Hattie says. ‘It made me feel really supported.’
What should I avoid doing?
The most important thing to do is to recognise that it’s a real illness. ‘It’s not something you can just “snap out of”, so avoid telling people to “cheer up”,’ Rachel Boyd says. ‘Depression doesn’t work that way, and saying things like this will just make your friend feel like they’re being shut down.’
Baker Britt, 27, agrees that this is really unhelpful. ‘When people told me this, it made me feel a lot worse, like I was just wasting their time,’ she says. ‘Not only that, but it legitimised the horrible thoughts I had going on in my head.’
Mental illness is still a taboo subject with a lot of stigma attached to it. This can stop your friends from seeking the help they need for depression, so being non-judgmental is also key.
‘I wanted to open up to my friends when I was first diagnosed in my late teens,’ Britt says. ‘A girl in my college was bipolar, and somebody in my friendship group started mocking her quite viciously, which was horrible and made me feel like I couldn’t talk about my own condition to them.’
Depression can also drive people to self-medicate using alcohol or recreational drugs. Both Dr McLaren and Rachel Boyd agree that it’s vital to help your friends avoid this where possible.
‘Suggest activities which aren’t focused around alcohol, like clubbing,’ Boyd says. ‘It’s easy for people with depression to get sucked into a negative cycle where they drink a lot, then feel even worse about things the next day.’
We’ve all had the fear the morning after a few glasses of white wine too many, but imagine how bad that must feel if your mood was already low to begin with?
Both experts say exercise is great, as it can help people with the condition stick to a routine and releases endorphins (feel-good chemicals) into the body. ‘It can be the last thing people want to do when they’re feeling low and fatigued, but something like yoga is an easy, regular activity,’ Boyd says.
Where can I seek support for myself?
Depression isn’t only hard on the sufferer, it can be difficult and frustrating for their mates too – and unless you pay attention to your own needs you can become stressed or unhappy. You need to make sure you’re also being supported.
‘When I was first diagnosed 10 years ago, there wasn’t much information out there,’ Britt says. ‘Luckily, things have changed, and sites like Mind and Time to Change have a wealth of material on them.’
Taking the time out to look at these websites will arm you with knowledge about depression – and at the end of the day, understanding it is one of the most important things you can do.
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