A Practical Guide to Helping Friends with Depression

MICHAEL ZACHARIAS lays down some simple and hopefully useful guidelines

brain cubs educate friends frogs help hugs listening mental health nutshell talking wealth

This isn’t going to be a revelatory article.

A controversial way to start, but seriously – this stuff has all been written before in different places and different ways. But it bears repeating.

And not just once a year because it’s some fancy global health day. If we’re going to get anywhere with this kind of thing it needs to be destigimatised through open and regular discussion, not restricted to one day a year.

Generic mental health stock images: a problem in themselves?

Generic mental health stock images: a problem in themselves?

1. Talk and Listen

To be honest this could be the only point.

Remove the stigma – so many myths abound and ultimately your friend needs help – they’re probably confused/upset/angry about why this abomination chose them and they need you.

Talking about depression is hard and often incredibly awkward, but just knowing that someone noticed they’re down shows they aren’t alone.

Giving them a safe space to talk is the other part of this. Listen to what they say and, more importantly, take it on board. Act on what you discuss and you’ll prove to them that they aren’t dealing with it alone.

2. Don’t be angry, be there

It would be silly to tell you not to be upset – you’d be upset if your friend told you they had cancer right? But don’t be angry.

My one memory of telling my friend was his anger that I didn’t tell him sooner.

He thought it was a betrayal, an indication that I didn’t trust him like he trusted me. I had wanted to tell him. But I didn’t. I was ashamed and upset and confused and ironically afraid of his reaction, afraid he’d no longer be my friend because I was faulty.

Hugs for cubs

Hugs for cubs

3. Educate and support yourself

There’s heaps of information online about mental illnesses, and while every individual’s experience is different, depression is a diagnosis for a reason – there is some stuff that rings true for all.

Peoples’ weight fluctuates, sleep patterns are unholy, and mood swings are to depression as presents are to Christmas. Everything gets out of whack and that obviously affects your mood and how you interact with your friends.

Furthermore, you’re going to have a lot of questions (often the first is “Why?!”) and it’s not always possible or constructive to direct that at your friend.

You are never expected to deal with the fact your friend has a serious, chronic illness alone – regardless of whether it’s cystic fibrosis, cancer or depression. So seriously it’s ok to find the support you need. You’re a better friend if you’re okay and dealing with it.

4. Make the effort

So to all the people from whom I’ve disappeared for like three weeks at a time – sorry! Was not what I wanted.

A friend who makes the extra effort is beyond words the most amazing being in existence. Send your mate a text telling them that you’re going for dinner. Make the decisions for them – Tuesday, 8pm, Bills. Unless they actually have something else to do, they’ll say yes. And it means the world.

At the same time, set boundaries that work for you both. State when it’s ok for them to ring you – 24/7 or not. Establish how much you’re able to do, so that you don’t end up paying the psychological toll.

Brains are sensitive creatures, like frogs

Brains are sensitive creatures, like frogs

5. Be patient

It’s a hard and long journey back from the depths of your mind. And it can be even harder to watch from the sidelines. Stick in there – follow through and be the friend that you know they need.

Don’t assume you can fix it. You can make it more bearable, more fun, and help them on the road to recovery, but you may not be able to cure them. Having said that, you can help them to find the professional support that fits – seeing a GP or a counsellor or a group session can all be the first step on the path to the light.

6. Don’t take it personally

Try not to take what they say/do personally. They love you; they probably don’t mean the bad stuff.

So in a nutshell: Talk. Listen. Follow through. Be patient. Be there. Be okay.

Freshers take heed – as you will soon see Cambridge is a breeding ground for mental illness. You or a friend will need support. And you can be that amazing person that gives it.

I sincerely hope that this does, or will at some point, help.