What can you do for a friend with depression? Here's your guide to some practical advice from a mental health care professional
You can be part of the support network for someone in need with these tips from a clinical psychologist: show empathy, establish boundaries, and remember you are not a therapist
The World Health Organisation claims that more than 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression, but it remains a disease that many people do not understand - even if they are affected by it, whether because they personally suffer from it, or because they know someone who does.
Dr Quratulain Zaidi is a clinical psychologist based in Hong Kong. She says that depression is “the experience of sadness or low mood for more than two weeks”.
She explains that it affects everyday life, and can cause symptoms like a loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed, weight loss or gain, insomnia, drowsiness, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, an inability to concentrate, and even thoughts of ending one’s life.
You may know someone who has depression. It’s natural to want to support them, but there are a few crucial things to bear in mind first.
Listen without judgment
“Listen to your friend, and try to empathise with how they are feeling,” says Zaidi.
Wong, a volunteer at mental health support charity Samaritans Hong Kong, who preferred not to give her full name, says it’s important not to make assumptions based on your own experiences.
“You are likely to have gone through similar situations as your peers, which means it is easy for you to take your own experience into account and make judgments when you’re listening,” she says.
Often, when we hear a friend’s problem, our first instinct is to try to minimise it. But this can sometimes come across as dismissive, leaving your friend feeling misunderstood, says Wong.
This can be especially upsetting for someone who feels isolated or lonely. “That’s because sharing their problems with someone requires a lot of trust,” Wong says.
That’s why listening without judging is so important. “Try to see things from your friend’s perspective.”
There may also be times when your friend doesn’t feel like sharing their problems with you, says Zaidi. “That’s okay, and you shouldn’t take it personally.” Knowing they can open up when they are ready is sometimes enough.
Set healthy boundaries
Helping others is very rewarding, but we mustn’t forget to take care of our own needs, too. “You have to be well to support a friend with depression, so make sure you look after yourself,” says Zaidi.
She recommends keeping track of your own emotions and stress levels. “Recognise how your friend’s mood impacts you,” she says. “This often involves setting healthy boundaries.”
In other words, let your friend know how much time you can give them, and in what ways you are able to help.
“Not being available all the time doesn’t make you a bad friend,” Zaidi points out. “It’s okay to say that you will not answer calls after 11pm, or that you won’t miss out on another friend’s party just because your friend decides not to go.”
She adds that scheduling time for your friend is helpful. “It makes both you and your friend feel safe and ready to talk.”
Wong agrees, adding that choosing a specific time and place for having heavy conversations can help you both process your emotions better.
“If you and your friend particularly enjoy doing something together, such as visiting a park or going to a coffee shop, then do it whenever either of you need to offload your emotions or problems to the other,” she says. “Promise each other you’ll leave everything in that place, instead of bringing it home.”
This little ritual will give you both the space to express your feelings freely, but also helps to separate these issues from your everyday life. It’s important that your friendship does not only revolve around depression, says Zaidi.
Being aware of your own mental health takes practice, says Wong. “You can start by taking a pause every now and then to ask yourself if you’re strong enough to continue sharing your friends’ problems.”
You are not a therapist
No matter what, you should not be your friend’s therapist, says Zaidi. Similarly, Wong suggests seeking professional help if your friend’s situation doesn’t seem to be improving. “Chronic depression is out of the range of what a [young person] can handle,” she says.
“Don’t be afraid to suggest that your friend goes to a ... professional for more long-term support. Build up the idea that looking for help isn’t shameful,” she adds.
If you find yourself constantly worrying about a friend with depression, then your efforts to be supportive may be having a negative impact on you, says Wong.
“Always remember that there are trusted adults or experts who can help you,” she says.
“Letting your friend know that their feelings are real and valid is a good starting point,” concludes Zaidi. “Getting the right intervention and seeking help from mental health professionals is the next step.”
This article was curated in conjunction with Young Post.