True friends are there to support each other through heartbreak, career woes and life’s successes. But what happens when a friend is diagnosed with depression? We asked a psychological expert to give his top tips for how to support a friend when you haven’t got a clue how to help.
Emotional turmoil is the preserve of the millennial generation.
Most of us are eyeball-deep in quarter life crises: sobbing into our cornflakes about our most recent drunk mishap / lack of pay rise / hopeless cooking skills and latest f*ckboy situation.
But while navigating our 20s might feel like a minefield, at least we have our best friends to keep us sane while en route.
We all know the BFF type – the one that’s on the end of the phone in the middle of the night to discuss WhatsApp exchanges with exes, or who has practical wisdom to offer when money is tight or parents are pesky or it’s Wednesday.
Friendship, especially the really good kind, means we can pour wine on our misery together, laugh off our slip-ups and give each other a helping hand whenever a tricky situation arises.
Except when your friend gets diagnosed with depression because then, everything changes.
How do you share the burden of something you haven’t felt, or offer advice if it’s something you don’t fully understand?
According to the Mental Health Foundation, one in five women have common mental health problems – such as depression – and are almost twice as likely to be diagnosed with anxiety disorders than men.
Most of us are cautious about trying to help a friend in this sort of situation, for fear that we’ll say the wrong thing or make it worse, or come off as unsympathetic.
But, as Dr Arthur Cassidy, one of the UK’s top social media psychologist and broadcasters, explains: ‘The most important thing that anyone can do as a friend – or even as a colleague – is to show human compassion, understanding and empathy.’
Sounds pretty obvious, but how do we put that into practice?
Don’t Be Quiet
According to Cassidy: ‘Often as friends, we feel guilty we might do or say the wrong thing but there are skills of saying, ‘I’m with you even though I might not understand what you’re going through, I’m not leaving you’.’
According to Dr Cassidy, the majority of depression in women is reactive depression – a depressed state in direct response to an external event.
Sometimes, there is a perceptible event or circumstance that brings it about – such as a bereavement, a break-up or something else life-altering.
So in order to support a friend, it’s a matter of looking for how you can help turn things around for them.
Help them make arrangements, take a few things off their plate, pave their way a little bit so that putting one foot in front of the other doesn’t feel so monumental a challenge.
Don’t underestimate the power of a cup of tea. The worst thing you can do is disappear.
‘Invite your friend around to your house for a cup of tea or coffee, and be ready to actively listen to them. One of the most important things to do when your friend is knowingly suffering with depression is to engage with them…
‘Also, be sure to reassure your friend that what they divulge to you is strictly confidential,’ explains Cassidy.
You might not know how to help, but sometimes just being present is enough.
Do Not Try To Empathise
It’s natural, when someone is being confessional, to try to soothe their discomfort with a cheery ‘hey, we’ve all been there.’
When it comes to post-night-out shame, this sort of thing usually helps.
But when it comes to depression, comparing your friend’s state of mind with your own feelings is not the right thing to do, because really, you probably haven’t been there.
Sometimes there isn’t anything practical to do and sometimes feelings defy logic.
Cassidy advises: ‘Don’t say anything along the lines of ‘snap out of it’. It’s not helpful and it’s actually quite cruel. Negative responses like this will make a friend feel frightened and insecure.’
Sometimes, the best thing to say is that you can’t imagine how they feel, so would they try to explain it for you.
If that’s too hard, or if you want to be pro-active, sit down with a friend and draw a line down a sheet of paper. ‘On the left hand side, list their negative thoughts, for example ‘no one loves me’, and then gently point out the flaws in their thinking by encouraging them to suggest the positive realities, which you can mark on the right hand side,’ suggests Cassidy.
Do A Little Shopping
As we’ve established, talking is helpful, listening is even more crucial, but when you’re all talked out or your friend isn’t in the mood to discuss things anymore, a little distraction is your next port of call.
This might sound mad. Or at least, maddeningly like we’re suggesting you make light of what is an awful situation. But, bear with us.
Surprisingly, according to Cassidy, retail therapy can be helpful. It’s a distraction, it’s somewhat productive and it might get a friend to feel more positive about re-engaging with social events.
‘Even the act of getting them to flip through magazines can be very therapeutic as it focuses away from the dark thoughts,’ he says.