4 ways you can be a supportive presence
Disclaimer: I’m not a therapist, and I’ve never dealt with diagnosed depression. But I’ve had friends who shared their struggles with me, and who inspired me to try and learn more. To be frank, I didn’t understand depression for a long time, and didn’t know how to support someone who was affected by it. I did my best, but without knowing anything, I wasn’t necessarily a helpful presence. I thought, “What does he have to be depressed about? His life is great!” or “Everyone’s dealing with stress, it’s probably just a little worse for her.” These kinds of attitudes aren’t healthy, or even correct most of the time.
I’ve done a lot of reading on the topic, and found several metaphors for depression. One that stuck with me was the idea of climbing a mountain.
Imagine you’re climbing up the surface of a steep, snow-covered mountain without proper equipment. It’s hard. And there’s a ski lift nearby that’s carting people up to the top, but you can’t get on. The people on the lift are telling you “it’s easy, just keep climbing up!” And right as you see the peak in the distance, you slip and fall all the way back down the mountain. That’s what depression is like for some people.
People who are dealing with mental anxiety or depression should be seeking the attention of a counselor or medical professional. You, as their friend, should not take the place of a professional. But that doesn’t mean you can’t offer some form of support.
Invite your friend to hang out, and pester him or her to actually go
Sometimes, people with depression are worried about their attitude being a burden to their friends, so they quietly retreat. Be the friend who notices, and invites them to hang out. If they try to beg off because they’re worried about being a bother, make sure they know that you genuinely want to spend time together. Don’t pressure them to do anything they truly don’t want to do, but make sure they know how much you care.
Let them know they’re not alone
This doesn’t have to be in form of a dramatic conversation or speech. Sometimes just a hug or an afternoon spent watching Netflix together can be enough. (Not to mention, any kind of physical touch releases brain chemicals like oxytocin, which makes people happier. So that hug may mean more than you think!) There are a lot of ways to tell someone you care about them, and they don’t all have to be grand gestures. Sometimes, it’s the little things.
Seems obvious, right? But depression is a frustrating beast, and if you’ve never dealt with it, you might get confused or exasperated when your friend tells you he or she is having another bad day. Is it really that bad or is she just being dramatic? I thought she was seeing a therapist, shouldn’t she be over it by now? Nope, it takes time. Don’t make your friend feel worse about their problem, especially if they’re working towards improvement. Just be there for him or her.
Don’t try to fix everything
Being there for your friend is important. It’s also important to respect that this is a very personal struggle, and for him or her to share it with you is significant. Don’t mess it up by being patronizing, or telling someone that mediation/exercise/eating healthy/insert your mood-boosting activity is the key to everything. You should know that while you can be supportive, you can’t make the depression go away entirely. It’s not a character flaw or bad habit. And trying to “solve the problem” can be interpreted as you saying there is something inherently wrong with him or her. For a person dealing with social anxiety, that thought can be devastating.
What most of this boils down to is: be a nice person. Someone dealing with depression might have the weight of the world on their shoulders. Anything you can do to make them feel happy is a good thing, and supporting them through the entire journey is something they (and you) will cherish.
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other crises, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has several resources and ways to reach out.