Almost 5% of adults in the U.S. struggle regularly with depression. Even if you haven't experienced it yourself, it's likely that someone you know has.

Eeyore, a character from Winnie the Pooh, nods wtih a sad expression. The image subtitle says Chances are that you want to help your loved ones who are struggling with depression, so you'll need practical ways to support those struggling with this disease.

How Depression Might Impact Your Friend

A man sits on the floor, crying, saying

You might notice your friend's attitude and behaviors changing because of depression.

Here's what these changes could look like:

  • They seem sad, cry, or get upset more often than usual

  • They talk negatively about themselves, the world, or the future

  • They seem tired and less energetic

  • They care less about their sleep schedule or what they eat

  • They seem forgetful or indecisive

  • They stop reaching out as much or stop talking to close friends

  • They seem less interested in things you know they used to care about

  • They skip social get-togethers, classes, or other events

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Things To Avoid

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Taking it personally

Know that your friend's outlook and attitude has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the disease they are struggling with.

Trying to be their therapist or to "fix" them

You can be there for support, but you don't have the training that a therapist has. It's not your responsibility to make your friend's depression go away.

Giving advice or comparing experiences

If you have never struggled with depression yourself, it's especially hard to understand exactly what your friend is going through. The feel-good activities that work for people who aren't depressed often don't have the same effect on people with depression.

A four-panel comic about neurotypical people suggesting depressed people try yoga.

Telling them to "cheer up," "see the bright side of things," or "think positively"

Having depression means that this type of thinking doesn't always have the intended positive effect — so don't make your friend feel bad or guilty for their inability to be happy.

A meme about neurotypical people suggesting depressed people

Waiting for them to reach out

Your friend might feel guilty about reaching out, or too tired or worthless to do so. Make it clear that you care for them by checking in on them and taking the initiative to reach out.

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How To Help

Be an active listener

Ask questions about what your friend is going through, and give them validation for their experiences. Try to see things from their perspective as much as possible.

Here are some phrases that can help you be an active listener:

  • "It sounds like..."

  • "It seems like..."

  • "What I'm hearing is..."

  • "Just to make sure I understand..."

  • "It feels like..."

  • "I get the sense that..."

Oprah nods, listening attentively to someone.

Help with tasks that might be hard for them

Sometimes depressed people struggle with "basic" tasks. Ask if you can pair up to tackle any of the following things:

  • Cleaning

  • Cooking

  • Making appointments

  • Finding a therapist

  • Exercising

Two people scrub a floor.

However, don't assume this is what your friend wants. They might feel guilty or powerless if you help out a lot, so make sure you let them take the lead.

Encourage continuing treatment/therapy if they are already getting it

Check in and ask how therapy or medication is going. If your friend mentions wanting to skip therapy, encourage them to go anyway.

Provide low-stakes commitments, events, and invitations

Even if your friend has stopped showing up to things, make sure to keep inviting them to future events. The less involved the activity, the better.

Stay in touch

Depressed people can often withdraw from their loved ones. By staying in touch, you can make sure that your friend doesn't become totally isolated.

A woman smiles and looks into the camera of her cell phone, talking to someone.

Take Care Of Yourself, Too!

Take care of your own mental health

Helping a friend who is struggling with an illness like depression can take a toll if you're not in a mentally stable place yourself. Make self care and stress relief part of your own daily routine.

Patrick Star medidates on top of a rock.

You can't be a one-person support system

Ask your friend about their support system and make sure they have several people they can talk to. If you are the only person they feel like they can talk to, that's an unfair burden to you, and could make you feel like you alone are responsible for your friend's well being.

Remember, the goal is to help your friend, not to do everything for them.

Have your own support system

Make sure you have people you trust who you can talk to about things that are stressing you out. Make sure that in helping your friend, you don't become isolated yourself.

Set boundaries

Be honest about what you're able and willing to do to help your friend.

A woman in a restaurant talks on the phone. The caption says

Setting Boundaries: An Example

A woman stands outside and looks at her phoneAllie’s friend Juan struggles with depression. Juan texts Allie right before her work shift starts, saying he is in a bad place and needs to talk to someone.

Below are four possible ways that Allie could respond:

A. Allie calls Juan and talks to him, and she ends up being late for work.

B. Allie texts Juan back, telling him she is frustrated at him for asking for help right before she has to work.

C. Allie makes sure that Juan feels safe enough to be alone for a little bit, and they make plans to talk on the phone later.

D. Allie ignores Juan’s message until after work, and she is stressed out for her entire shift.

Quiz

Which of the responses above is the best way for Allie to set boundaries with Juan?

D

B

A

C

When To Seek Outside Help

Have an emergency plan

Have a conversation with your friend about what to do if their depression becomes dangerous. This plan can balance keeping your friend safe with the type of support they want. For example, maybe they prefer that you contact their parent instead of a resident assistant in the dorm you both live in if there is an emergency.

If you think your friend might be in danger or might hurt themself or others, immediately contact a trusted adult, emergency services, or a suicide hotline. If you are on the phone with your friend, stay on the phone with them for as long as possible until help arrives.

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Signs of suicide risk:

  • Talking about suicide, death, dying, feeling trapped, or wanting a way out

  • Purchasing a weapon or lots of pills

  • Risky behaviors

  • Increased substance abuse

  • Getting rid of belongings

  • Wanting to be left alone even more than usual

  • Unusual goodbye messages

  • Emotional swings, instability, or personality changes

Take Action

Whether or not you know someone who is experiencing depression, you can still be prepared to help.

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This Byte has been authored by

SS

Silvan Spicer

higher education instructional designer