How to Help a Friend With Depression (And Protect Your Own Mental Health)

Jordan Brown

You may think that there's nothing you can do when a friend or family member has depression.

But you'd be wrong.

Today you're going to learn several simple but powerful ways to help someone through depression.

How to Help a Friend with Depression - What to Remember

Show Empathy

The first thing you need to remember is that depression is not a choice.

It's not a desire to ruin everyone else's day.

Depression, major depression, clinical depression, postpartum depression--if your friend or family member has been given any of these diagnoses, then you must, as we say in the social work world, meet them where they are.

When I was struggling with clinical depression, I had these depression symptoms:

- I'm a burden

- I can't do anything

- I'm letting everyone down

- I'll never amount to anything, ever

Notice the extreme tone of these thoughts.

With depression, it's common to feel like it's all or nothing.

These extreme statements aren't realistic, but to a person with depression, they feel very, very real.

And that's the context through which you should view the situation.

Your friend or family member is dealing with more than just a bad mood--it's an all-encompassing collection of feelings that have taken over their life.

Don't take things personally

Don Miguel Ruiz wrote about this in his world-famous book about Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements.

He wrote that one of the four agreements we must make with ourselves to live a happy life is to not take things personally.

Why?

Because it's not about you.

Someone's bad mood is not there to ruin your life.

It's a lesson.

Challenges exist to make you better and to give you something to learn, not to single you out and make you miserable.

When I was struggling with depression, I was stuck in my own self-centered world.

All I could think about was myself and my problems.

As a result, I treated people in ways I would never normally treat them.

It was all about me, me, me.

Your friend or family member likely feels the same way.

If you take things personally, you feed into a narrative that is not even true in the first place.

You prop up a fake world and write yourself into the drama as one of the characters.

Now, I don't want you to think that someone dealing with depression has created this reality to suck others in.

They are struggling, and it's an awful place to be.

What I'm saying is that you have your own life and your own body and mind.

Your friendship doesn't mean you have to bring yourself down to be there for your friend.

That would be codependency.

A strong friendship is one in which both friends can come together for mutual benefit but also separate to go away and live their own lives.

Now that you know the context, you can approach the situation in the right mindset.

Still, there are things you should do if you want to protect your own mental health, so let's talk about that now.

What to Do - Helping a Loved One with Depression

Set boundaries for yourself and others

Being there for someone with depression can be hard, hard work.

I'm forever grateful for my wife for standing by my side when I was, to be honest, a general pain to be around.

That being said, you have a right to protect your own health and happiness.

1. You might need a break from your friend

If you've been on the phone with your friend every night for three weeks straight discussing their issues, it's normal to get burnt out.

It's normal to need a break, and you should take one.

You know yourself best, and you know when you are outside your capacity to be helpful.

Excuse yourself when needed, and remember that your friend might have negative comments about your decision.

You don't need to engage with the comment because you can do this instead.

2. Connect with the feeling

There's a metaphor that helps with this that I learned when I was teaching the Family-to-Family course for NAMI.

You want to land on the same emotional runway that your friend takes off from.

So, if they are talking about how everyone hates them and that they will never amount to anything in life, rather than responding to the content, which can zig and zag all over the place, you want to respond to the general feeling--the runway.

Instead of saying, "Yeah, you might be right" or "Why do you think everyone hates you?", you could say:

"Wow, it sounds like you're feeling all alone right now" or "It seems like you're feeling disconnected from everything. That's tough."

One response continues to feed a false narrative.

The other helps them come down for landing on a safe runway.

3. Make friends with other people in your life

Finally, when it all becomes too tough, you must surround yourself with other people who lift you up.

This doesn't mean you're ditching the other person--it just means that you know you have a right to protect yourself and your own mood.

Don't give advice

1. Don't fix

This one might be considered the parent problem.

When I was working in the mental health field, I would frequently work with youth and their parents.

And, more often than not, parents wanted to fix their kids' problems and help them feel better.

It's only natural when you see your child struggling.

But this is not how depression works.

The person with depression must work their way out of it, often with the help of a combination of medicine, exercise, and the support of mental health professionals. 

It's easy to take on the burden of needing to save your "depressed friend."

But there is no "depressed person."

There is a human being living with something incredibly difficult, and this human being must navigate the depths of the darkness to come back to life again, as we all must do at times.

2. What to do if your friend asks for advice

This situation can be particularly challenging.

If your friend asks for advice, it can be tempting to give it because they asked for it, right?

Wrong.

It's a trap, and one you're not likely to get out of quickly.

So much of depression is a focus on the past, on the negative, and on what won't work.

What I recommend, based on my own experience and what I've seen from others, is to offer support backed up by mutual action.

To get out of the ruts of a negative way of being requires doing something new.

See if you can back up your response with a new action for you and your friend.

If you can help them take a new approach, you will help them rewire their brain for a new way of thinking and doing.

3. The one exception

Of course, there are always exceptions, and I want to review the biggest one with you.

Symptoms of depression run the gamut from the tedious and annoying to the critically serious.

If your friend or family member shares suicidal thoughts--especially if there is a specific plan in place to take their life--then you must act.

Here are a few risks of suicide to look out for:

1. A suicide plan, especially one that has specific detail to it.

2. Frequent comments about suicide, even if they are general in nature.

3. Suddenly giving away all possessions. This could mean that they've recently decided they want to end their life.

If you notice anything like this, it is more than OK to talk about it.

It's necessary.

Be direct.

Ask: Are you thinking about killing yourself?

Have you ever thought about killing yourself?

It won't give people ideas.

That is absolutely false and has no evidence to support it.

If they say yes to your questions, you need to help them get to the emergency room for an evaluation.

This is the major exception when it comes to giving advice.

In Conclusion

Living with depression is awful.

No one should ever have to deal with it.

But it's a reality we need to talk about.

If your friend or family member has depression, remember this: they also have you.

They have a caring friend that knows that one of the best things he or she can do to support another person is to take the time to support their own mental health.

You have the tools, and now you just need to apply them.

You can be there for your loved ones AND yourself.