Do you have a friend who’s living with depression? You’re not alone.
According to the most recent estimates from the National Institute of Mental Health, just over 7 percent of all U.S. adults experienced an episode of major depression in 2017.
If your friend is experiencing depression, they may:
- seem sad or tearful
- appear more pessimistic than usual or hopeless about the future
- talk about feeling guilty, empty, or worthless
- seem less interested in spending time together or communicate less frequently than they normally would
- get upset easily or are unusually irritable
- have less energy, move slowly, or seem generally listless
- have less interest in their appearance than usual or neglect basic hygiene, such as showering and brushing their teeth
- have trouble sleeping or sleep much more than usual
- care less about their usual activities and interests
- seem forgetful or have trouble concentrating or deciding on things
- eat more or less than usual
- talk about death or suicide
Here, we’ll go over 10 things you can do to help as well as a few things to avoid.
Let your friend know you’re there for them. You can start the conversation by sharing your concerns and asking a specific question. For example, you might say, “It seems like you’ve been having a hard time lately. What’s on your mind?”
Keep in mind that your friend may want to talk about what they feel, but they might not want advice.
Engage with your friend by using active listening techniques:
- Ask questions to get more information instead of assuming you understand what they mean.
- Validate their feelings. You might say, “That sounds really difficult. I’m sorry to hear that.”
- Show empathy and interest with your body language.
Your friend may not feel like talking the first time you ask, so it can help to continue telling them you care.
Keep asking open questions (without being pushy) and expressing your concern. Try to have conversations in person whenever possible. If you live in different areas, try video chatting.
Your friend may not be aware they’re dealing with depression, or they may be unsure how to reach out for support.
Even if they know therapy could help, it can be daunting to search for a therapist and make an appointment.
If your friend seems interested in counseling, offer to help them review potential therapists. You can help your friend list things to ask potential therapists and things they want to mention in their first session.
Encouraging them and supporting them to make that first appointment can be so helpful if they’re struggling.
On a bad day, your friend might not feel like leaving the house. Depression can zap energy and increase the desire to self-isolate.
If they say something like, “I think I’m going to cancel my therapy appointment,” encourage them to stick with it.
You might say, “Last week you said your session was really productive and you felt a lot better afterward. What if today’s session helps, too?”
The same goes for medication. If your friend wants to stop taking medication because of unpleasant side effects, be supportive, but encourage them to talk to their psychiatrist about switching to a different antidepressant or getting off medication entirely.
Abruptly stopping antidepressants without the supervision of a healthcare provider can have serious consequences.
When you care about someone who’s living with depression, it’s tempting to drop everything to be by their side and support them. It’s not wrong to want to help a friend, but it’s also important to take care of your own needs.
If you put all your energy into supporting your friend, you’ll have very little left for yourself. And if you’re feeling burned out or frustrated, you won’t be much help to your friend.
Setting boundaries can help. For example, you might let your friend know you’re available to talk after you get home from work, but not before then.
If you’re concerned about them feeling like they can’t reach you, offer to help them come up with a contingency plan if they need you during your work day. This might involve finding a hotline they can call or coming up with a code word they can text you if they’re in a crisis.
You might offer to stop by every other day or bring a meal twice a week, instead of trying to help every day. Involving other friends can help create a bigger support network.
Spending a lot of time with a loved one who has depression can take an emotional toll. Know your limits around difficult emotions, and make sure you take time to recharge.
If you need to let your friend know you won’t be available for a while, you might say something like, “I can’t talk until X time. Can I check in with you then?”
Imagine having to educate each person in your life about a mental or physical health issue you’re experiencing — explaining it over and over again. Sounds exhausting, right?
You can talk to your friend about their specific symptoms or how they’re feeling, but avoid asking them to tell you about depression in general terms.
Read up on the symptoms, causes, diagnostic criteria, and treatments on your own.
While people experience depression differently, being familiar with the general symptoms and terminology can help you have more in-depth conversations with your friend.
With depression, day-to-day tasks can feel overwhelming. Things like laundry, grocery shopping, or paying bills can begin to pile up, making it hard to know where to start.
Your friend may appreciate an offer of help, but they also might not be able to clearly say what they need help with.
So, instead of saying “Let me know if there’s anything I can do,” consider saying, “What do you most need help with today?”
If you notice their refrigerator is empty, say “Can I take you grocery shopping, or pick up what you need if you write me a list?” or “Let’s go get some groceries and cook dinner together.”
If your friend is behind on dishes, laundry, or other household chores, offer to come over, put some music on, and tackle a specific task together. Simply having company can make the work seem less daunting.
People living with depression may have a hard time reaching out to friends and making or keeping plans. But canceling plans can contribute to guilt.
A pattern of canceled plans may lead to fewer invitations, which can increase isolation. These feelings can worsen depression.
You can help reassure your friend by continuing to extend invitations to activities, even if you know they’re unlikely to accept. Tell them you understand they may not keep plans when they’re in a rough patch and that there’s no pressure to hang out until they’re ready.
Just remind them you’re happy to see them whenever they feel like it.
Depression usually improves with treatment, but it can be a slow process that involves some trial and error. They may have to try a few different counseling approaches or medications before they find one that helps their symptoms.
Even successful treatment doesn’t always mean depression goes away entirely. Your friend may continue to have symptoms from time to time.
In the meantime, they’ll probably have some good days and some bad days. Avoid assuming a good day means they’re “cured,” and try not to get frustrated if a string of bad days makes it seem like your friend will never improve.
Depression doesn’t have a clear recovery timeline. Expecting your friend to return to their usual self after a few weeks in therapy won’t help either of you.
Letting your friend know you still care about them as they continue to work through depression can help.
Even if you aren’t able to spend a lot of time with them on a regular basis, check in regularly with a text, phone call, or quick visit. Even sending a quick text saying “I’ve been thinking of you and I care about you” can help.
People living with depression may become more withdrawn and avoid reaching out, so you may find yourself doing more work to maintain the friendship. But continuing to be a positive, supportive presence in your friend’s life may make all the difference to them, even if they can’t express that to you at the moment.
Depression often involves sadness or a low mood, but it also has other, less well-known symptoms.
For example, many people don’t realize depression can involve:
- anger and irritability
- confusion, memory problems, or difficulty focusing
- excessive fatigue or sleep issues
- physical symptoms such as stomach distress, frequent headaches, or back and other muscle pain
Your friend may often seem to be in a bad mood, or feel exhausted a lot of the time. Try to keep in mind that what they’re feeling is still part of depression, even if it doesn’t fit into the stereotypical versions of depression.
Even if you don’t know how to help them feel better, simply saying “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way. I’m here to help if there’s anything I can do” may help.
1. Don’t take things personally
Your friend’s depression isn’t your fault, just as it’s not their fault.
Try not to let it get to you if they seem to lash out at you in anger or frustration, keep canceling plans (or forget to follow up), or don’t want to do much of anything.
You might, at some point, need a break from your friend. It’s okay to take space for yourself if you feel emotionally drained, but it’s also important to avoid blaming your friend or saying things that might contribute to their negative feelings.
Instead, consider talking to a therapist or other supportive person about how you feel.
2. Don’t try to fix them
Depression is a serious mental health condition that requires professional treatment.
It can be hard to understand exactly what depression feels like if you’ve never experienced it. But it isn’t something that can be cured with a few well-intentioned phrases like, “You should be grateful for the good things in your life” or “Just stop thinking about sad things.”
If you wouldn’t say something to someone living with a physical condition, like diabetes or cancer, you probably shouldn’t say it to your friend with depression.
You can encourage positivity (though your friend may not respond) by reminding them of things you like about them — especially when it seems like they only have negative things to say.
Positive support can let your friend know they do really matter to you.
3. Don’t give advice
Though certain lifestyle changes often help improve symptoms of depression, it can be hard to make these changes in the midst of a depressive episode.
You might want to help by offering advice, like getting more exercise or eating a healthy diet. But even if it’s good advice, your friend may not want to hear it at the moment.
There may come a time when your friend wants to find out what foods may help with depression or how exercise can relieve symptoms. Until then, though, it may be best to stick to empathic listening and avoid offering advice until asked.
Encourage positive change by inviting them on a walk or cooking a nutritious meal together.
4. Don’t minimize or compare their experience
If your friend talks about their depression, you might want to say things like, “I understand,” or “We’ve all been there.” But if you’ve never dealt with depression yourself, this can minimize their feelings.
Depression goes beyond simply feeling sad or low. Sadness usually passes fairly quickly, while depression can linger and affect mood, relationships, work, school, and all other aspects of life for months or even years.
Comparing what they’re going through to someone else’s troubles or saying things like, “But things could be so much worse,” generally doesn’t help.
Your friend’s pain is what’s real to them right now — and validating that pain is what may help them most.
Say something like, “I can’t imagine how hard that is to deal with. I know I can’t make you feel better, but just remember you aren’t alone.”
5. Don’t take a stance on medication
Medication can be very helpful for depression, but it doesn’t work well for everyone.
Some people dislike its side effects and prefer to treat depression with therapy or natural remedies. Even if you think your friend should take an antidepressant, remember that choosing to take medication is a personal decision.
Likewise, if you personally don’t believe in medication, avoid the subject when talking to them. For some people, medication is key in getting them to a place where they can fully engage in therapy and start taking steps toward recovery.
At the end of the day, whether or not someone with depression takes medication is a very personal decision that’s generally best left to them and their healthcare provider.
Depression can increase a person’s risk for suicide or self-injury, so it’s helpful to know how to recognize the signs.
Some signs that might indicate your friend is having serious suicidal thoughts include:
- frequent mood swings or personality changes
- talking about death or dying
- purchasing a weapon
- increased substance use
- risky or dangerous behavior
- getting rid of belongings or giving away treasured possessions
- talking about feeling trapped or wanting a way out
- pushing people away or saying they want to be left alone
- saying goodbye with more feeling than usual
If you think your friend is considering suicide, urge them to call their therapist while you’re with them or ask your friend if you can call for them.
Not in the United States? The International Association for Suicide Prevention can link you to hotlines and other resources in your country.
You can also take your friend to an emergency room. If possible, stay with your friend until they no longer feel suicidal. Make sure they can’t access any weapons or drugs.
If you’re concerned about your friend, you might worry that mentioning it to them could encourage suicidal thoughts. But it’s generally helpful to talk about it.
Ask your friend if they’ve seriously considered suicide. They may want to talk to someone about it but are unsure of how to bring up the difficult topic.
Encourage them to talk to their therapist about those thoughts, if they haven’t already. Offer to help them create a safety plan to use if they think they might act on those thoughts.