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Depression is always a tricky subject to approach. It’s very personal. Also very emotional. Many of us will know someone who suffers from depression and some stage and understanding the best way to support them can be tricky. Here are my tips on how you should support a friend with depression. 

Firstly you should study up on what depression is. It’s fairly common, with an estimated 300 million people suffering from it worldwide. Awareness for depression has increased dramatically in recent years, which is a good thing. However, it means there’s also more misinformation on the subject than before.

It’s really important to learn about depression and the different types that can affect people. This is an important first step in helping your friend with depression. It means that you’ll be able to understand the context of their illness. Because depression is a clinical mental illness.

Contrary to many thoughts, it’s not simply “feeling sad” or “going through a bad patch”. Whilst it does affect different people to different degrees, it’s really important to understand signs and symptoms. Depression can in worst case scenarios lead to suicide.

It’s ok to not understand

So whilst it’s really important to learn up as much as you can, it’s also ok to admit you don’t understand what your friend is going through. As mentioned, depression affects different people differently. Even if we read about symptoms etc, we might not be able to really understand how it’s affecting our friend with depression. This can be true even if you have suffered from it yourself.

It’s therefore completely fine to admit you don’t understand. There’s a big difference between whether or not you understand and you being understanding. Remember that you’re not expected to have the answer. That’s not your role for your friend with depression.

The power of presence

One of the most powerful and effective things you can do is simply be there. It sounds simple right? Well, it is. Many people believe that they need to have answers, or need to be more proactive in helping. They become upset and frustrating thinking that they’re unable to help.

But the fact is simply being there is helping. A lot of the time that’s all someone will want from you. To be there, to listen, and to offer your support in whatever form that might be.

Of course being there can be hard. Depression is a long term illness, and it might be hard to commit yourself to that. It can be hard to be around someone who is depressed for long periods of time. Their mood might affect yours.

It’s good in these situations to see the different ways you can be there for someone. You can be there for them in person. Hanging out, including them in plans, and generally checking up on them is a great thing to do. But you can also keep in touch with them simply through phone calls and text.

You might feel that you’re not doing enough, but it’s important to remember that doing anything is already fantastic. You have to be able to choose what works best for you, and what you can realistically offer your friend.

Keeping up the conversation

Conversation is one of the tricky things to navigate. What do you talk about? Do you talk about the depression? What if your friend doesn’t respond? It’s tricky because there are no hard and fast rules.

First, let’s look into whether or not you ask them about the depression itself. Generally, I would advise against this. You might be curious, but asking outright could put pressure on your friend or make them uncomfortable. A lot of the time, they might not even be able to explain it.

However, you should try and make it clear that you’re open to listening. Your friend might not feel like it at first, but if they do eventually want to share with someone, it would be really helpful for them to know that they can come to you.

Second, you can talk about whatever you want. Tell them about your day. Or TV shows your watching. Maybe even office gossip. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t engage well in the conversation, it can be really nice to simply have someone be there and talk to you. Just remember to be yourself. There’s no need to force conversation or to talk about things you wouldn’t normally.

Finally, some people are happy to simply sit in silence. Silence doesn’t mean it’s awkward. This is the point where your presence could already be the biggest difference. Silence doesn’t mean you’re failing. Just keep in mind your friend’s comfort level, and try and gauge the level of conversation they want to have.

Another way of communicating with someone is to simply give them a hug. Physical contact can be a great way of communicating your feelings to your friend.

Asking for help

Finally, it’s really important to remember you can ask for help. It’s ok to ask your mutual friends to also help support your friend with depression. You can also talk to their family members to keep up to date with what’s going on.

It’s also ok to ask for help for yourself. Supporting someone with depression can be extremely draining. Their mood can affect yours, especially if you don’t feel things are improving. It’s so important that you look after your own health as well.

Of course, there’s also the worst case scenario to think about. Depression can lead to suicide and if you think your friend is in danger of going down that path then you definitely need to ask for help.

You can call the free 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services) is available to people in crisis (or their loved ones) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Calls are routed to local crisis centers if you are in America.

For those in the UK, the Samaritans (116 123) operates a 24-hour service. If you prefer to write down how you’re feeling, or if you’re worried about being overheard on the phone, you can email Samaritans at jo@samaritans.org.

Other countries also offer similar services.

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