…And by “depressed,” I mean clinically depressed – the sort that has no apparent reason and lasts for weeks or even months. Your friend is not just sad, but feeling hopeless, helpless, discouraged, defeated. even immobilized. She or he may not want to go anywhere or do anything that used to bring happiness. You may even detect a dullness – called “flat affect” – in the person’s voice, a lack of animation, often combined with monosyllabic responses.
What can you do to help your friend?
At first it may seem like the answer is “not much.” And that’s partly true. What your friend really needs is probably help from a mental health professional and possibly from antidepressant medication.
There are, however a few things you can do to help your friend – and a few things you shouldn’t do, not because they will make your friend’s condition worse, but because they simply won’t help.
Let’s start with the things you can do.
Keep reaching out. Even if your friend doesn’t respond, refuses your invitations or doesn’t show up, know that the simple act of staying in touch says that you like the person even though she’s having a hard time and that you won’t abandon her. Make no mistake, many people will. Even if your friend is unable to respond, when she finally does get some relief from the depression, she will realize and remember who stuck by her during the depths. Surely you can spare a minute or two for a phone call or email a couple of times a month. You may think it won’t make a difference, but it will.
Offer to help with practical matters. If your friend has decided to get professional help, you can make doing that easier. You may not realize it, but the simple acts of getting up, dressed, and out of the house can seem insurmountable to him. Offer to drive him to his appointments or to the pharmacy to pick up his prescriptions. Give him a pill caddy to help him remember to take his meds every day.
Imagine your friend is physically ill. In a way, she is. The depression is a result of a neurochemical imbalance in her brain. What would you do if a friend were recovering from an illness or perhaps surgery, or even the death of a loved one? Bring her a hot meal once in a while or pick up an extra sandwich if you’re getting one for yourself? Offer to do laundry or another household chore? Enlist other friends to help? Pray for her healing and tell her you are doing so? None of this will make your friend magically well, but they can help her through the worst phases of a depressive episode while she’s waiting for medication to take effect (which may take as long as six weeks).
There are also some things that you shouldn’t do for your friend because they simply will not work. Here’s a brief list.
Don’t try to “fix” him. As much as you may care, you do not have the power to make it all better. Trying to do that will only frustrate both of you. Leave your psychological theories and miracle cures at home.
Don’t give “pep talks.” Telling your friend to snap out of it or to smile more or to think of others who have it worse will not alter his brain chemistry for the better. He most likely won’t be able to appreciate jokes and humor, either, even if he did before the depression.
Don’t expect quick results. Clinical depression lasts for weeks or months, or in some cases even years. It’s frustrating to see your friend suffering for that long, but if your friend sees you give up, she may too.
Don’t ignore suicidal talk. Suicide is a real risk for a depressed person, even if he is getting professional help. Most people who kill themselves give warnings – they talk about being better off dead or give away their possessions. Stay with your friend. Make sure he has the number of a suicide hotline. Call his therapist. Take him to an emergency room.
My advice for someone who lives with a depressed person is similar: Do what you can and realize what you can’t do. If you truly care about the person and stick with him or her through the bad times, you may find one day that you have your friend or loved one back – maybe not as good as new, but on the way to getting better.
That’s when you’ll find that all your efforts have been worth it. Helping a depressed friend survive and heal is an accomplishment not to be taken lightly.