How to help a friend with depression: practical advice from a psychologist


Learn how to support a friend in need: show empathy, set boundaries, and always remember you are not a therapist

Nicola Chan |

Latest Articles

‘Don’t blame women’: Japan’s declining birth rate sparks online debate

How parasitic worms wriggle their way into raw fish products

Vatican to send Pope Francis’s message of hope into orbit

Calling all astronomy buffs: Catch 5 planets lined up in the night sky this week

‘Glaze’ software aims to protect artists from copycat AI

6 English phrases from K-pop songs to level up your writing

Helping a friend with depression can be a delicate balance.

Depression may be something that many of us have heard about, but don’t fully understand. What we do know is that it affects a lot of young people in Hong Kong.

According to a study last year by the Hong Kong Playground Association, 14 per cent of teenagers aged 13-18 have severe or extremely severe depression.

Dr Quratulain Zaidi is a clinical psychologist in Hong Kong. She tells Young Post 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.

However, some people find it more difficult to cope with bad experiences than others, says Wong. So try to remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel about something.

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 teenager can handle,” she says.

“Don’t be afraid to suggest that your friend goes to a trusted adult or 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.”

Edited by Charlotte Ames-Ettridge

You might also like:

How to comfort someone who is sad, hurting or going through a hard time in a way that lets them know you're here to help

Self-care tips to help you look after your physical, mental, and emotional health

Growing Pains: take back control - don’t let anxiety rule your life - it can be done

Sign up for the YP Teachers Newsletter
Get updates for teachers sent directly to your inbox
By registering, you agree to our T&C and Privacy Policy