The 6 things to know when supporting someone who suffers from depression

Being there for someone, what does that really mean? Does it mean being physically there 24/7? Do it mean putting their needs before yours? Does it mean walking on egg shells?

These are common mistakes, but no. Being there for someone does not have to mean any of these things. In fact, you should define what it means for you.

What are you personally able to do given your own circumstances? You may very much love someone who is really unwell right now, and as much as you would want to take their suffering away there is only so much that you personally can do because well… You have a life too. You have your own things to get on with and your own problems to deal with.

So how do you deal with this? How to know how much to do?

Tip # 1 Assess what you have to give

Start with being honest with yourself. How much time and energy can you really commit to support this person? And I do mean commit. Because there will be nothing worse for your friend than hearing a strong promise that you will always be there whatever happen and then a few weeks or months later hear that, sorry, you need space or that your new girlfriend does not like your friend too much and would much rather you stop seeing her.

Sounds like something I have experienced? That would be because it is. I have mentioned a few times a dear friend of mine who helped me so much when I was at my worse back in Denmark. He is the guy who used to take me out for a walk nearly every day. Well…He was my rock. The one stable things in my life that didn’t change. Sadly after a few months, his new girlfriend asked him to stop all contacts with me. Don’t be too quick to blame her; good or bad, she had her reasons.

But this isn’t my point. My point is that from one day to the next, my rock disappeared. And that hurt, a lot. And it really was not something I needed at that time, believe me.

Of course circumstances do change. But you do not want to be breaking that promise if you can avoid it. So start with assessing realistically:

  • How much time do you have to give per week
  • How much energy do you have to give

Review your existing weekly commitments. Do you have time to spend an hour a day with your friend either physically or on the phone?  Maybe your own life is already hectic and all you could afford is to try and convince your friend to join you at your weekly yoga class and grab a coffee afterwards. And if that is all you can do but you are sure that you could commit to that, then that would be fine. Having a regular thing in the diary is actually very important for your friend’s wellbeing right now, and so is exercise. And you already know if you have been following me for a while, I highly recommend yoga to people suffering from depression. It has enormously helped me and I am convinced that it can help others too.

And as I mentioned above, please do not let your friend down as this is likely to make him feel worse!! You need to understand that someone suffering from depression might be wondering what the point of their life is. They most likely also suffer for extremely low self-esteem at this moment in their life. Breaking a promise, however small it was, might just trigger further feelings around how unimportant they are.

I am not saying this is true for everyone, but it could be. It surely was for me.

As clearly you care enough about your friend to wish them better, please be careful to not accidently make them feel worse.

Tip # 2 Look after yourself first

A car without petrol does not go anywhere. Someone who hasn’t attended to her own needs cannot look after someone else. It is the same thing.

This is why the safety video on the plane tells you that you should put your own mask on before helping others to do so. They usually show a mother putting on her own mask before sorting out her child’s. This always makes me wonder. Is that really what a mother would do? But as much as it might seems counter-intuitive, it is the right thing to do. If the mother passes out, she won’t be able to help her child at all!

And so this is exactly what you should do here. Being around someone who suffers from depression is hard. I have been living with several persons who suffered from depression over the years so I know how draining it can be to spend time with someone who is down at the time.

It’s just like physics; if you are going to spend energy, make sure you have some in the first place. Whatever it is that you need to do to feel good, you should do it before you go out and help your friend.

The last thing you want is to start feeling blue yourself because you are giving more energy than you have. Once again I am not just saying this. Living around people with mental health issues (not just depression I am afraid) has in fact been the first trigger of my first depression when I was 14.

So before you change into your Zorro clothes ready to save the day, make sure that you have refilled your energy and that you feel good. And then by all means go and save your friend.

Now let’s look at the practical stuff.

Tip # 3 Help with the basic assignment / routine

I mentioned before how a strong routine will help your friend. This is an easy area for you to help.

You can support your friend by doing the following practical things:

Help your friend create the routine

Sit down and talk about what it is that your friend should do every day to help him get better.

Be your friend’s accountability partner

Check on your friend once a week and ask for her progress (or lack of is fine too – don’t judge). Accountability is a proven method of personal development against procrastination. Personally I found that it also worked for me to implement a routine. I was reporting to my GP weekly and felt like I had to show progress.

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Do something with your friend on a regular basis

One of the things that I have mentioned a few times on this blog is the importance of exercising. 30 minutes a day is the recommended dosage. So one easy way to support your friend in this is to exercise with her on a regular basis. It doesn’t have to be every day. Maybe you can only manage once a week. It does not matter how often it is as long as it is a regular meeting that you do not miss.

Another strong ingredient of the routine is to eat 3 times a day.

Depending on how your friend feels this might be a challenge. There are a few things that you can do here. You can have a meal with your friend from time to time. You can offer to take them food shopping or do your shopping together. That way you can encourage them to eat more or more healthily. You can plan the week’s menu together. You could make it into a game and send each other picture of your dinner every day.

Tip # 4 Make them laugh

When you are suffering from depression, you don’t really feel like laughing. That is a shame. Because laughing releases endorphins, also called the happy hormones.

You know your friend best. You know what will make him laugh so get on with it! Plan an evening at home watching comedies or take her out to see her favourite stand-up comedian live. Or just go around and try to lighten his mood by telling him funny stories you have heard recently. Don’t force it too much but creating the environment cannot hurt.

Tip # 5 Organise fun things to do together

People with depression tend to forget what it is that they enjoy in life, especially their hobbies. If you know your friend well, you will know what it is they used to enjoy before the depression kicked in. You could organise a day (or just a few hours) doing precisely these things.

Someone who knows me might organise any of the following:

  • A meal and a show in London
  • A day at the Spa
  • A long walk in the country ending in a country pub
  • An exhibition at the Tate Modern or the V&A
  • Brunch and shopping with the girls
  • Live music

Tip # 6 Learn how to listen

Just to be clear listening means just that: listening. Listening does not mean, listening for 2 minutes and then talking for 30 minutes because you think you understand what the problem is and you think you have the solution.

Whatever you think does not actually matter right now. What matters is that this person who suffers from depression and that you care about feels able to open up to you about how they are feeling. It is important that they have people to talk to, people who really listen, without judging.

Sadly they are more bad listeners than good listeners. But on the plus side, being a good listener is a skill that one can learn.

It is not that hard really. Here are the basics:

Listen actively

Really listen and try to understand what they say. If you are unsure and you want to check you understanding, you can repeat what you have heard back to them. That way they can either confirm or have another go at explaining if you did not get it.

Do not interrupt

Whatever thought is going through your head, it will have to wait. It is sometimes very hard to try and explain how you are feeling and the really thoughts things that you need to say might not come easily. Give your friend the space to speak.

Don’t talk until it is your turn

Wait until they are done talking before you say anything. It might take a really long time. You need to be patient. And really if they are that talkative, you should be happy; they are opening up to you. They trust you.

Don’t put pressure on them to explain

Let them talk as and when it is the right time for them. They will tell you the amount that is right for them to share with you at that moment. What you can do is let them know that you are available if they want to chat.

Do not judge

You might disagree with whatever you hear but now is not the time to judge, especially if they are talking about the way they feel. You shouldn’t judge people because they feel low or are having suicidal thoughts. And by the way, if they tell you they have had suicidal thoughts, it is great! It means that they are less likely to actually do it. They obviously need a lot of support because this is a horrible place for them to be and you want to help then get out of that place as quickly as possible but the fact that they are opening up about it means that they are asking for help so that they do not do it. It is extremely hard to listen to but if you do hear it just remember that they are taking a huge step towards you and that they trust you to help. And that is huge.

Do not try to offer solution

Unless they asked for it of course. But here we are talking about the listening part. Your friend might not want your advice, she might just need someone to talk to, someone who listen to her. Have you ever tried to tell someone a story and that person interrupted you every 2 minutes with a comment (or worse advice!) on one of the details of the story not paying attention to the bigger picture? How irritating was that? So in this particular case do not give any advice unless you are asked to.

Stop and cancel

Call them out every time they talk themselves down. This is important to help them realise how much negative self-talk is going on. As discussed before, becoming aware of this is an important step towards recovery. A good friend of mine mentioned this to me once. She said that when one does realise that one is talking badly to oneself one should say “Stop and cancel” to actively undo the damage that was just done. All that said, call them out after they are done talking… Not while they do it!!

Are you supporting someone who suffers from depression? What would you your tips? Go ahead, let me know in a comment below!



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