…from someone who’s been there.
I’ve been dealing with depression since early adolescence. I’m not talking about bursts of sadness because your dog died or you failed a test; I’m talking about a chronic mental illness. It took a long time, but I finally started treatment about two years ago, and I’ve learned a lot. I’ve learned things about myself, the people I surround myself with, and of course, the mental illness itself.
I’ve faced a series of highs and lows. One thing that I’ve noticed, which I’m sure is not surprising, is that the cliche “hard times reveal true friends” is sadly, true. And I get it, you know? It’s hard to be around someone you love when they’re sad and complaining. You don’t want them to be sad, and you don’t want to feel sad because you’re around them. Maintaining that bond is beyond difficult, especially if it goes unaddressed.
If you don’t know what’s going on in the world of a depressed person, being there for them can be even more difficult. Empathy for the situation is one thing, but actually understanding is another.
If you are trying to be there for a loved one who’s battling a mental illness, here’s a bit of insight and ways to help, based on my experiences.
What we want you to know
We might not always appear sad.
Many of us don’t match the stereotypes often associated with depressed people. Some of us are in denial. Some of us just don’t want people to know. Whatever the reason, we suffer silently; we fake a smile, we laugh, and do our best to go about our daily lives. We mask it, but we’re dying on the inside.
Understand that living with depression is living in a state of complete disarray.
We can’t find the “bright side” of things. We may be cognitively aware that a “bright side” of our situation may exist, but it’s not enough to make us feel better. It’s not enough for us to even see it as something that’s good.
You can always point out the positives in whatever the situation is, but don’t be hurt or surprised when your friend doesn’t exactly see it the same way.
We don’t mean to lash out.
We might not even realize what we’re doing or comprehend that know that it hurts you – but we’re sorry. It sucks, and many of us try not to do it because we love you…but sometimes, it happens. We’re just a little too sensitive. It may hurt, but as hard as it is, try not to take it seriously.
Don’t assume we just want attention.
There are few things worse than hearing that you’re just acting sad to get attention, that you’re a drama queen, or that you’re intentionally blowing your feelings out of proportion when you are suffering from depression. You may think that something is trivial, but belittling our struggles just tells us that our feelings are invalid.
We don’t want to feel this way.
And we are probably more frustrated with ourselves than you are. Unfortunately, we can’t control our emotions. With depression, comes a lot of self-loathing. Do you think we like to feel like crap all the time? No, but we can’t just turn it off.
As a friend, you should understand that you can’t control how we feel, either. While there are certainly things you can do to boost our spirits, at the end of the day, our feelings are what they are.
You might need to ask us how we cope.
You don’t need to be a therapist, or even to act like one, to help a friend cope with depression. Everyone has different ways to cope, and as long as they’re not hurting anyone, it’s important to accept that different coping mechanisms work better for different people.
I’ve learned how to tell my friends what kinds of things help me cope, but not everyone can do this. You may need to ask if they just need someone to listen, if they are looking for advice, or if they don’t want to talk about it at all. Maybe they just want a friend to be there to watch Breakfast at Tiffany’s with them. To simply not be alone.
Avoid being critical of our coping mechanisms.
Really, just avoid being too critical, period.
With the exception of anything harmful or dangerous, respect that how we cope may be different than you, and may even seem a bit odd. But hey. If it helps, it helps.
You can always offer advice based on your own experiences, but avoid communicating it in a commanding way. Telling us what to do is frustrating, and it’ll be frustrating to you if we don’t take your advice.
We might isolate ourselves.
When we get very low, many of us convince ourselves (without really trying) that those who love us don’t actually care. Gently remind us that we’re wrong; You do care.
But don’t just say it. Don’t just tell them that you love them and they can call any time, prove it.
Please, be patient with us;
No matter how hard we try, we can’t manage this on our own.
It’s not always easy to be friends with us at our low points. We’re essentially battling ourselves. Even while in therapy, a support network is crucial.
If you’re struggling to figure out how to handle your specific situation, you can always call your local suicide hotline. They have a different approach to helping people with mental health that’s different than a peer, and in my opinion, somewhere between a therapist and a friend. It may also help you to get your struggles about the situation off your chest, and luckily, suicide prevention hotlines are open 24/7.
One final note:
At the end of the day, you need to accept that what you’re friend is facing isn’t their fault, and it’s not yours either. All you can do is to just be there for them. You can’t control what they do, who they see, and you definitely can’t control how they feel.
Offering your shoulder to lean on is invaluable.