Sometimes a friend starts behaving in a way that makes you think they might be struggling with depression, but what can you do? They may not feel up to hanging out or even talking.
If you think a friend might be struggling with depression, it’s OK to share your concern. “Usually I recommend saying something that acknowledges what you’ve been observing,” says Dr. Lauren Weitzman, director of the University of Utah Counseling Center, such as, “Hey, you haven’t really seemed like yourself the last few weeks and haven’t been up for hanging out. I’m a little concerned—is everything OK?”
“What we call ‘normalizing’ depression is really important,” Dr. Weitzman says.
Be present, in any way they’re comfortable with
In addition to making your friend feel heard, the best thing you can do is be present and nonjudgmental, says Dr. Alan J. Gelenberg, professor emeritus of psychiatry at the University of Arizona. Even when it’s hard to know what to say, you can help by:
- Being present and spending time with them, whether that’s over video chat, a quiet night in, or a light-hearted activity that could take their mind off the depression (if they’re up for it).
- Accepting them and their depression. Recognize that they can’t just “cheer up” or “get over it.”
- Encouraging physical activity, which has been shown in studies to help alleviate symptoms of depression. Suggest going on a walk or run together, doing an outdoor yoga class, or organizing a basketball game.
5 things to avoid saying
It’s important to be careful in how you talk to your friend about depression. Try to avoid the types of statements below, even if they’re well-intentioned.
“We have such stigma around mental health and the word ‘crazy,’” Dr. Weitzman says. “Depression is an illness—it’s not being irrational or acting crazy.”
While a lot of people do experience depression, brushing it off like this minimizes your friend’s experience.
This suggests that you can make depression go away just by having a positive attitude, Dr. Weitzman says, but it’s not that easy. It’s like telling someone to just snap out of having the flu.
Again, statements like this minimize what your friend is going through. For people dealing with depression, it’s a big deal.
It’s OK to acknowledge that it’s hard to interact with someone who is depressed, Dr. Weitzman says, “but try to do that in a non-blaming, non-shaming, supportive way.” Instead, try something like, “Wow, I miss the person that you were a few weeks ago, but I want to make sure that you get help.”
Most importantly, you need to recognize when your help isn’t enough—especially if you’re worried a friend or classmate might harm themselves or others. “Let them know you really want to help them find some help,” says Dr. Weitzman. You might even offer to walk with them to the counseling center.
If someone seems at risk of harming themselves or others and seems resistant to help, don’t drop it. Talk to a professor you trust, get on the phone with a school counselor, or reach out to your RA, who is trained in handling these situations. Some schools even have anonymous tip lines where you can alert counseling staff ASAP of students who may be a danger to themselves or others. Check with your university counseling center for your school’s specific protocol.
Talk to someone now: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Lauren Weitzman, PhD, director of the University of Utah Counseling Center.
Alan J. Gelenberg, MD, professor emeritus, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Arizona and editor-in-chief of the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry.
Helen S. Mayberg, MD, professor, Department of Psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia.
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