N00bs guide for supporting friends with depression

Trigger warning: discussion of mental illness and suicide (non-graphic).

I picked up a free postcard on Tuesday night. It was promoting World Mental Health Day, and it contained a list of top ten tips for maintaining mental wellbeing. I want to send it to someone, but I don’t know who. So many people I know struggle to maintain mental wellbeing.

Yesterday was Suicide Prevention Day. Today is RU OK Day. October 10th is World Mental Health Day. Mental illness is getting a lot of airtime (screentime?), which is great. Traditionally it has been completely ignored, and today the issue remains highly stigmatised.

Unfortunately, a lot of the airtime/screentime is closely related to suicide prevention, and this concerns me for two reasons:

1) The issue of suicide comes with a lot of blame and guilt. Telling people to reach out to those they think might be struggling is great, but the flip side of that is: “Does that mean it was my fault such and such killed himself? Because I didn’t ask him if he was OK?” And that is awful.

2) Depression and other mental illnesses are not just about suicide! The Western medical model prioritises staying alive over all else. So if you have severe depression, but are not a suicide risk, good luck getting help in the medical system, especially the public health system. By reproducing this model in our public promotion of how to support people with mental health problems, we are basically saying that it’s okay to have a shit life, just as long as you don’t end it.

Captain Awkward wrote this great blog post recently about how to be a friend to someone who has depression. I highly recommend it. Actually, she pretty much says everything worth saying on the matter. But I thought it would be more promotion to the issue to write about it myself.

I’ve been on both sides: depressed friend, and friend of depressed person. So I have some little experience in the area.

You are not a professional therapist

Or even if you are, maybe it’s an ethical problem to be psyching people in a nonprofessional context. But most of us aren’t professionals. If you are close to someone who is struggling, be their friend, not their therapist. If your friend is not seeing a therapist-type person, recommend they do so. You might want to do some research for them — find out affordable places nearby, and/or offer to drive them there.

Be a normal friend

So if I’m not being their therapist, how do I help them? Well, just be a friend. Invite them places. Make it easy, like offering to meet at their house. Listen to them vent without trying to problem-solve or fix them. In fact, let go of the need to fix your friend altogether. It’s not your personal responsibility to make your friend better.

Invite your friend a few times, don’t give up if they say no once. I mean, I’m not advocating stalking someone, but don’t let your rejection sadfeels get in the way of asking.

Don’t be scared of depression

Your friend might not be as fun as they used to be. No der. Depression is no fun. That’s no reason to ditch them when they might need you more than ever.

And don’t ignore the depression either. There’s nothing more lonely than being in the depths of depression, and hanging out with someone who is all sunshine and rainbows, and changes the subject every time you say something depressive.

Get support for yourself

Being friends with someone who has depression can be frustrating. Especially if you think it’s your personal responsibility to fix them, even though I just told you not to. They might not get better. They might. You just have to do your part in supporting them.

But if you’re finding it wearying, make sure you get support for yourself. Without betraying confidence, ensure that you also have someone to vent your sadness and frustration over the fact that your friend is in pain. If you don’t do that, you might end up spewing your feelings back on your depressed friend, which is the last thing that person needs.

Have you asked someone today, RU OK?

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3 thoughts on “N00bs guide for supporting friends with depression

  1. This is great and I wish more people would read it and take it on board, sometimes all I want is for someone to ask if I’m OK, I don’t need a therapist or to cry at someone. Depression is hard, its hard on the person with it but also on the people around them, especially when those people are struggling to understand 🙂

  2. I hate UR OK day. It is a nice try but there are some many things wrong with it.
    You might ask someone if they are ok. They aren’t but they don’t know how to explain it.
    You might ask someone if they are ok. They say No. What do you do?

    I suffer depression and I still don’t know what to do.

    • Asking someone if they’re okay is by no means a panacea. But I think it is the idea of starting that conversation. Instead of seeing someone is not okay and ignoring it, or just assuming they’re okay, you are actually talking about it.

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