Knowing how to comfort a depressed friend is a mystery to many. Managing a depressive episode can be difficult and isolating, not only for the depressed person but also for those who care. Many people around you may not understand what to do or say, even when sincerely wanting to help. Whatever you do, take the situation seriously.
Because a depressed person’s thinking, self-awareness, and perception of reality may be altered negatively from depression, what you say and don’t say to a depressed friend is worth examining. Use mindfulness when choosing your words.
The Ranch Pennsylvania is here to help you learn how to handle the challenging situation of what to say and do when comforting a depressed friend or loved one.
If a friend or loved one is suicidal, call 911 immediately. Asking a depressed loved one or friend if they are having thoughts of suicide is not being inappropriate. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, more than 47,000 Americans lost their lives to suicide in 2018.
It’s perfectly fine to ask, “Are you having any thoughts of harming yourself?”
If you’re unsure who to call for help, dial 911 or visit the Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.8255.
When Mike gets home from work after eight hours, his wife, Denise, is still in bed. “Did you stay in bed all day?” he asks. Denise immediately crumbles into tears. She had been dreading Mike’s return home and feels ashamed for having so little energy.
Denise’s depression has been worsening for the past month. Initially, she was irritable and angry for several weeks. Then, her energy level plummeted. Mike wonders if mental health treatment could help his wife.
Depressive episodes interfere with a person’s ability to function. Getting out of bed and dressed for the day may require a herculean effort.
Most importantly, remember depression isn’t something anyone plans. No one says, “I think today, I will be as miserable as possible and get nothing productive done.” Instead, depression can be a gradual, somewhat insidious medical condition chipping away at your life.
More About Mike & Denise
Mike didn’t do anything wrong either; he’s tired and concerned. Mike isn’t a medical doctor or mental health professional. After a call to a residential mental health treatment center, Mike gets coached on how to handle Denise’s depression best.
Here’s how Matt handles the same situation a few days later:
Mike comes home from work. He sees Denise in bed and reminds himself Denise’s depression isn’t something she’s able to control right now. It isn’t personal in terms of anything he did or didn’t do.
He can’t fix it. Denise has a medical condition.
“Denise, I’m concerned,” Mike says. “I can see you are struggling, and I want to help, but I’m not someone who can help with this type of problem. I know you aren’t doing this on purpose,” he adds.
Instead of threatening or reacting in anger to Denise’s lack of energy, Mike offers to help Denise make an appointment with her family doctor. Denise resists.
“Denise, are you having thoughts of suicide?” Mike asks. Denise replies, “Yes, I think everyone would be better off if I weren’t here; I’m just a burden to you.” Mike, prompted by his call to the mental health treatment center, immediately asks Denise if she has made any plans to kills herself. She replies, “No.”
If the answer had been “Yes,” Mike would need to seek help immediately from a medical or mental health treatment professional.
Mike reassures Denise she is loved, but she needs help as soon as possible. If she doesn’t make an appointment with a doctor or mental health professional, he will call 911. He calls Denise’s best friend and explains the situation.
Together, Mike, Denise and Denise’s best friend create a plan. Denise calls the doctor and makes an appointment for the next day. She makes an appointment with a mental health treatment professional. Denise’s friend offers to drive her to the doctor’s appointment.
In this way, Denise understands she must take action, and she feels supported in doing that.
Depression can alter a person’s thoughts.
While Denise may feel totally willing to go to the doctor when making the appointment, she doesn’t feel up to going when the day comes. Mike understands this is part of having a depressive episode. With Denise’s friend already on board as a driver, Denise follows through and gets to the doctor.
The same is true for the appointment with the mental health professional. She gets the help she needs. In this case, comforting a depressed friend means staying with the friend until they see the doctor.
Why Can’t They Just “Snap Out of It?”
While it’s true the way we think and behave impacts our mood, someone experiencing the medical condition called clinical depression isn’t able to simply “snap out of it.”
The brain’s mysteries aren’t understood yet. While mental health professionals are miles and miles ahead in research and treatment, the human brain is still packed with unknowns.
It’s unfair and unrealistic to tell someone to just “pull it together.” It is especially true if the person has a history of chronic depression or has been depressed for more than a few weeks.
What not to say:
- You have a great life; How can you be depressed?
Even people with great families and well-paying jobs get depressed. Again, no one asks for depression. The roots of depression aren’t completely understood, but biology, genetics, circumstances and more play a part. Depression is far too complex for armchair opinions.
- You will feel better soon. Stop worrying about it.
If someone is genuinely depressed, just wishing it away won’t help.
- Get busy and take your mind off things.
Treating clinical depression isn’t this easy. If it were, no one would be depressed for long. A symptom of depression is fatigue, so asking a depressed person to “get busy” is like asking your cat to speak French.
What to say when comforting a depressed friend:
- I care about you. You don’t seem like yourself. How can I support you right now?
- Do you need someone to listen? We can go someplace quiet, and I will listen without judging.
- How bad is it? Are you thinking of hurting yourself? I just need to ask because I care about what happens to you.
- Is there a doctor, mental health professional, or mental health treatment center you see? Do you need someone to sit with you while you make an appointment or to drive you there? Or, do you need someone to help sort out where to find treatment?
- I’m sure this feels terrible. I know depression makes life challenging. Depression is treatable, though. How can I support you in getting the treatment you might need?
Sometimes just being with someone, without judging or offering opinions, is the greatest gift for someone depressed. Offer to help with a task like meals and housekeeping while they seek treatment is a kind gesture. Treatment is overwhelmingly successful these days but may take some time to work.
Having compassion and love while you comfort a depressed friend is important. Help your loved one know they aren’t alone during this difficult time.
If you, your friend, or a loved one is in need, The Ranch Pennsylvania is here to support you. Our recovery specialists can walk you through available mental health treatment programs and help you find the best care.
Call us at 717.969.9126.
By Heather Berry
Contributing Writer with Promises Behavioral Health