How to Help a Depressed Friend

Jay Sheen

lthough everything in life seemed right, there was, nevertheless, something very wrong for Jamie. Upon graduation from college, she’d been hired into her “dream job” as a media advisor for a professional association. She had a good salary, exceptional work colleagues, a large circle of friends, and a supportive family. 

“Still, I felt so miserable,” she recalls. 

At night, Jamie had trouble sleeping. Her appetite and energy evaporated. Activities she used to enjoy, such as her daily morning jog, felt like an impossible task.

After this had gone on for nearly a month, one of Jamie’s friends intervened, saying, “I’m worried about you. You just don’t seem yourself.” When Jamie confided how lethargic and unmotivated she was feeling and that she even had thoughts of suicide, her friend urged Jamie to see a counselor. Jamie took that advice, and her counselor listened carefully, diagnosed depression, and set out a treatment plan. As is common for many people who suffer with depression, Jamie’s treatment was effective. Four years later she has not experienced another bout with depression.

The fact is, depression can be immobilizing and all-consuming. And before you think that depression only happens to people who are unspiritual or weak, keep in mind that even spiritual heroes in the Bible experienced depression. King David lamented: “I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. . . . Why, Lord, do you reject me and hide your face from me?” (Psalm 88:8–14)   

Depression, when left untreated, can become fatal. But thoughtful, caring friends who intervene can help save a life. Ralph Waldo Emerson wisely noted: “You cannot do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late.” 

If someone you love is depressed, here are some ways you can help: 

Educate yourself.

Don’t make assumptions about mental illness and depression. Do online research. Visit a library or bookstore to carefully select materials that will inform and guide you to be a better ally for a depressed friend. By reading books and magazine articles about depression, you will have a clearer understanding about the symptoms, treatment options, and other complexities of depression. The information you glean will empower you to give appropriate support. It will also reduce your own feelings of helplessness.

Maintain an observer’s mind.

Many people react emotionally when a depressed friend is venting. When they say, “No one cares,” you might be tempted to snap back, “Of course people care about you!” It might sound counterintuitive, but the best way to help a depressed friend is to be a detached, objective observer. In other words, avoid getting into an argument, avoid raising your voice, avoid sarcasm, avoid criticism, and avoid contradicting your depressed friend. Doing those things are all indications that you may be reacting from your own emotions. 

In their book What To Do When Someone You Love Is Depressed, authors Mitch Golant, PhD, and Susan K. Golant, explain: “The purpose of using the observer’s mind is to avoid personalizing what your loved one is saying so that you are not drawn into an argument that neither of you wants. . . . When you are in the observer’s mind, your goal is to recognize what your loved one is feeling without reacting personally.” 

When you remain an observer, your responses are emotionally detached but supportive. For example, if a depressed person says, “No one cares,” the response of someone with an observer’s mind might be, “I know it feels that way to you right now, but I care, and we’ll get through this together.” 

Suggest a spiritual connection.

More and more professionals are recognizing the healing value of religious faith. When we are feeling alone or depressed, a link with a spiritual community can generate new feelings of hope, acceptance, and love. It can be extremely helpful to encourage a depressed friend to tap into the spiritual. 

In their book Getting Your Life Back: The Complete Guide to Recovery from Depression, authors Jesse H. Wright, MD, PhD, and Monica Ramirez Basco, PhD, say the sense of belonging to a faith group can reassure you in times of trouble. 

“If you make an effort to get to know those with whom you attend services, you can become a type of family, giving and taking support from the larger group,” they say. 

According to Wright and Basco, you may want to encourage a depressed friend to revisit a church or spiritual practice from their past: “The constancy of practices and traditions of your worship group can be reassuring in a world where things change all the time. The rituals you may have complained about as a child can give you a sense of belonging as an adult. When the choir sings a traditional hymn, . . . you may feel reassured that God and your community of fellow-believers are still at your side.” 

Keep your friend engaged with life.

Depression shrinks life. People who are depressed tend to withdraw more and more from family and friends, as well as from activities they previously enjoyed. Suggest ways your friend can become stronger physically, mentally, emotionally, and socially. Recommend an exercise program, and offer to participate with them. Invite them to join you for walks, concerts, or cultural activities. Especially encourage participation in activities that once gave them pleasure, whether it’s a hobby, creative endeavor, or travel.

Don’t go it alone.

If your supportive words and actions fail to penetrate your friend’s depression, it is vital that you help them find professional care. 

Consider the experience of one couple affected by depression: Mark, who was a college swim coach, learned his program was being terminated and he would lose his job. Although he received several months’ pay after the school year ended, Mark became severely depressed as he focused on the unhappy turn of events. His wife Fran was alarmed to see her husband’s mood deteriorate. When he stopped shaving, stayed in his pajamas, and spent most of his days in bed watching television, she said, “Mark, I’m really worried about you. I’ve never seen you like this. You seem quite depressed. I think we ought to call our doctor and have her evaluate you to determine what’s going on.” 

Mark protested initially, but Fran insisted, and Mark agreed. She made the appointment and went with her husband, who was diagnosed with depression. The doctor established a treatment plan, which proved effective in a short time. 

Mark’s experience with professional treatment is not an unusual one. Doctors estimate that up to 90 percent of people with depressive issues will respond to treatment.

Ultimately, the depressed person must take charge of depression in order to have a successful recovery. It is important for you, as a friend, to recognize there is a limit to how much you can help. Your depressed friend must take responsibility for learning more about depression and activity fighting it. However, your friendship is critical to recovery, because you can provide the encouragement, hope, and perspective a person needs to effectively deal with depression. 

Jay Sheen writes about spiritual and mental health from his home in the Midwest.

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