A persisting low mood, loss of interests, declining self-esteem and little energy to do things – it can happen to anyone. Depression is a common mental illness that affects about one in ten people in the UK, according to the NHS. Causes may vary, but one thing is certain: depression does not discriminate.
Unfortunately, people with depression are often misunderstood and have to deal with many hurtful comments about what is essentially an invisible but very serious illness. Nevertheless, a healthy support network can make a world of difference for a person with depression. So how can you help someone cope? And what should you most certainly not do?
I have drawn up a number of tips from years of dealing with depression. These include things people have said to me that were not helpful, and things people have done that were helpful. What I want to emphasise most of all is that depression can be very hard – not just on the person themselves, but also on their surroundings – but that you can help someone a long way even with the tiniest gestures.
Also, please always bear in mind that you are not a professional and it is not your job to “fix” the other person: all you can do is be there for them. At the bottom of this post I have listed some resources that can help when you or another person is having a hard time.
Special thanks to Lauren for helping me edit this piece.
What not to say
You should exercise/go outside/eat healthy
Though it is true that these things can have a positive effect on a person’s mood, it is generally the last thing a person with depression wants to hear.
We know you mean well by giving advice, but it can really be very alienating. Everything you do that is considered normal, such as eating, exercising, and leaving the house, can be extremely difficult for a person with depression. Often getting out of bed is a challenge, let alone leaving the house. If you start handing out advice like this, chances are that the other person will feel like a failure who cannot even do the simplest “normal” things.
What you can do, however, is help them achieve these things. For example, show up to their house and tell them you are taking them to the park, or take them to that dance class you know they love.
I’m having a bad day myself
Yes, we all get out at the wrong side of the bed sometimes. But your one bad day cannot be compared to the overwhelming symptoms of depression. If you start going on about situations in which you think you were totally depressed as well, you are making it all about you. This is disrespectful and will only make the other person feel misunderstood.
It is not to say that you cannot complain about your horrendous day to a person with depression, but please be aware that your temporary bad mood and their illness are not the same thing. For you, the sun will come out tomorrow. For them, it will definitely not feel that way. So please, do not act as if you can relate and understand, when really you cannot.
You’re still not over that?
Depression can be a long-lasting illness with various causes, and sometimes it has no obvious cause at all. As noted before, it can happen to anyone.
Telling someone to “get over it”, “just move on”, or “cheer up!” is extremely painful and mean. This is a serious illness affecting a person’s everyday life. Just because it is not visible, does not mean it doesn’t exist.
If you are lucky enough to have never experienced this, good for you! But that does not mean this illness is not valid. It is suffered by millions of people all around the world, and usually requires treatment such as medication and/or therapy.
It could be worse!
When I was a teen, I was really struggling with the notion that there are so many people out there with difficult lives. With the “children in Africa have it so much worse!” saying in mind, I felt like I wasn’t allowed to feel bad about my life and that I was just another spoiled teenager who was overreacting. Needless to say, I was constantly downplaying my own problems. As a result, it took me over a year to finally admit I needed help.
Putting things into perspective for someone is not going to be helpful. You may think you are trying to show someone all the good in their life and the things they should be grateful for, but in reality you are just making them feel guilty about having depression.
Besides, you would never say the opposite to someone in a good place: you shouldn’t feel happy, there are people out there with much better lives than you! That is because your mental health is not defined by other people’s situations.
What you can say or do
Acknowledge that depression SUCKS
I remember a lot of times when I was trying to address my problems, people tried to one-up me by saying “oh Laura… you’re not really tired, I am tired. I did not go to bed until 4 last night!”. For some reason, people feel the need to try and win sympathy points by dismissing other people’s feelings. Obviously, this is not helpful.
As a friend, the best thing you can probably do is listen and acknowledge the other person’s feelings. Let them know they are valid and that they matter as a person by paying attention to them. Ask how they are coping, give them hugs, and let them know you are willing to listen. Whenever I received messages that people had me in their thoughts, felt sympathy for my situation, or were worried about me, I felt I was appreciated.
Truthfully, there is not much that you can say that will help the other person conquer their depression – all you can really do is be there for them. So let them know you feel bad for them and that depression SUCKS, because it totally does!
There are a number of small gestures you can make to show your support. It is nice to know that people are thinking of you, because it shows that you actually do matter and have a place in the world. So sending out a postcard, buying them a little present, or dropping them a kind message can all be very meaningful. I am very thankful for everyone who has thought of me when they knew I was having a bad time, and I will never forget those gestures of appreciation.
Help them out
As I explained before, the simplest things in life can be very hard for a person with depression. One of the reasons why getting out of bed is such a challenge is because once you do, you have to get dressed, and then make food, and then do the dishes, and then take care of lots of other things you do not have the energy or mental capacity for.
This is where you can come in to help. Make your friend a proper meal, drop by to do their dishes, help them clean their room, or perhaps just pay visit with a fun film for distraction. Depression can disable someone in many ways, so having someone around to take off the load can be a massive help. However, it is very unlikely they will ask someone to assist them, as people with depression often feel like a huge burden on the world. So, show initiative and help out that friend!
Find professional help
You can only be of help to a certain point. If your friend is really not doing well and their situation is not improving, I suggest you try to support them in finding professional help as soon as possible.
Ask your friend if they would be open to visiting their GP. Offer to come with them for moral support if they seem hesitant. Most cases of depression are resolved within the short term, as long as you take action on time.