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How to Help a Depressed Friend

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October was National Depression Awareness Month. Mental Health Awareness Week is in March.

The existence of such calendar events bespeaks a lot of progress. It wasn’t very long ago that mental health was the problem no one talked about.

We’re more forthcoming now, but there’s still a long way to go. And it is important that we talk about depression in particular.

It is the second most common mental health issue in the US, touching nearly 7% of Americans each year, some 16 million of us. Only anxiety disorders afflict more people.

Depression is a disease that calls on the people around the affected person to do the right thing as well. Not one single, depressed person has ever been helped by a family member or friend telling them to snap out of it.

If you believe someone you care about is depressed, there are limited things you can do to help. But they might help a lot.

You will probably be at a loss to know what to do sometimes. But these things will make a difference.

First, be clear in your mind before you offer any opinion or advice that depression is not a character flaw. That’s crucial. Critical. Vital.  All-important. This is a point we cannot overemphasize.

Depression is not a weakness that a “strong” person would shrug off.

Nor does it spring from a lack of proper gratitude or appreciation. A depressed person may know quite well that he has a beautiful family, a good job, and a fortunate lifestyle… and still be depressed. Because it is a disease, not a decision.  John Lennon and Mark Twain suffered from depression, and they had all that plus enormous talent and the adulation of millions.

The reason that realizing depression is a disease is the first step in dealing with a depressed friend is that your attitude matters. There’s honesty in confessing that a depressed person’s behavior frustrates you. But pretending to be sympathetic if a corner of your mind is thinking, “he/she could get over this if he wanted to” will undo any help you would like to offer.

In fact, when depressed, a person is often acutely sensitive to criticism, and worse, tends to believe he deserves it. It is hard to convince someone in the throes of severe depression to accept a compliment. Criticism sinks right in.

If your friend broaches the subject of medicine or counseling, be completely supportive. That’s a hurdle that is hard for many to jump. Depression is a medical condition. A medical advisor is completely sensible. So is counseling. Please don’t tell anyone who is depressed your opinion on “Prozac Nation,” the overmedicating of America, how people didn’t use to have these kinds of problems back in grandpa’s day, or any other ill-informed and mean-spirited declamation.

If your friend wants to talk, let them know you will listen. Then listen.

Hold back on offering solutions instead of your ear. If you really have the answer to a problem, that’s fine. But resist the urge to fix everything.  It’s abysmally hard to do that at times. There is nothing finer in life than being able to help someone you love, and it can be acutely uncomfortable to know you cannot solve another person’s problems for them.

Reach out, too. When someone is depressed, inactivity and isolation are extremely likely coping tactics, even if they aren’t good ones. Your friend may have a reason why dinner on Friday doesn’t work this week, or a movie doesn’t interest them today. Keep reaching out. Make it easy for your friend to stay in touch (and harder to hide). When you do arrange a meeting, you may have to opt for less time than usual to avoid overdoing it, but you will have helped your friend nonetheless by keeping him engaged with life.

If you are very close and have a long history, you may come to know the signs of oncoming depression. Depression tends to be cyclic. Contrary to the usual image, the depressed person is not always a sad, crying mess. For many, the first sign of depression may be high irritability, anger, or tiredness. If you are close to someone, this is when you can ask how they are feeling and mention what you see happening.

And finally (for today, although this is a big topic) if you are in a relationship that ties you to the depressed person, take care of yourself. As the wife/ husband, son/daughter, or lifelong best friend you won’t want to walk away. Yet at times, you will feel like running as far and fast in the opposite direction as you can go. If you are in one of these relationships that means you are strongly tied to the depressed person, take yourself to a psychologist or counselor if you need the support.  Do it without recriminations and blame. And then give yourself all the attention you need. Get counseling, not for the other person, for you.


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