What’s helpful, or unhelpful when you’re supporting a friend with depression? I can’t answer that in an authoritative way, I can only speak for myself. Depression shows itself differently in each person, it can vary enormously in severity, symptoms and duration so this is nowhere close to being a definitive answer. But I was asked this question recently and it seemed a helpful one, so here is a personal attempt at an answer. Here is a little of what is going on in my head, when people try to talk to me about depression, or try to avoid the topic.
Speaking in Code
If you ask me how I am, I don’t want to say “I’m fine”, because it’s fundamentally not true, and I’m a truthful sort of person. Saying “I’m fine” when I’m not makes me feel cut off and isolated from people, which makes the depression feel even worse. But neither do I want to say, “The depression is making everything really bleak right now”, because that’s swerving the conversation in a pretty deep, dark direction and you were probably only hoping for a bit of small talk and to pass the time of day.
So if the depression is on my mind, and it almost always is, I will say, “Ok, but quite tired at the moment”, or “Surviving”, or “Still standing, just about” I want to be truthful, but I don’t want to be in your face. I don’t want to force you into a conversation about depression, if you don’t want one, so I say something that you can just smile at and acknowledge but don’t have to deal with.
Flowers, Cards and Chocolate
Is it helpful to send get well cards and gifts? Well, it won’t make the depression go away, if that’s what you’re asking…. but think about it this way. Having depression and some pretty flowers to look at has got to be better than depression and no flowers. Likewise with chocolate – I’d rather have depression AND chocolate than depression and no chocolate. (Chocolate and no depression would be best of all, of course!)
Having depression makes me fear that people will think I’m skiving or over-reacting to a bad week, or just not coping very well. Sending a gift or a get well card says, “You have an illness, a real one” and that helps. It also says, “We care, we haven’t given up on you, we haven’t forgotten you, we haven’t got really cross with you for letting us down”, and that’s all good stuff to be reminded of.
“We think you’re great”
Depression makes me feel worthless and failed – like the most rubbish vicar on the planet. Ditto for being a wife, mother and all round worthwhile human being. Telling me, “But we think you’re great” is really kind, but it’s really easy for me to disbelieve you. “Well you would say that”, I think to myself, “You’re a kind person, you wouldn’t tell me I’m rubbish to my face”.
A couple of friends have sent emails saying, effectively, “We think you are great…..and this is why” and went on to tell me specific things I had done that had made a real positive difference to them as an individual, or describing how the church has changed in positive ways since I arrived. That’s much harder to dismiss as “just being nice”. Those emails have been a real source of strength, trying to counter some of the negative soundtracks in my head.
“I’ve been there too”
I wouldn’t wish depression on anyone, but meeting someone who has had experience of it and is happy to chat is a great thing. Even if our experiences have been very different, I feel less alone because I know you understand. “I’ve never had depression, but my wife/brother/friend has” is a help too. If you can tell me, convincingly, “I’m living proof that there really is life on the other side of depression”, I’m all ears.
“If there’s anything at all I can do to help, just let me know”
This is really, really kind, but it’s incredibly hard to respond to. Depression makes my thinking fuzzy, and drains my confidence and decision making powers, so I’m left blankly thinking, “I’d love to take you up on that, but I haven’t got the foggiest what to ask you to help with.”
Specific suggestions are much more helpful: “Shall I bring you round some DVDs to watch, while you’re off work?” or, “Do you want me to photocopy service sheets for next week, so you don’t have to?” are great. If it’s a misguided suggestion, I’ll just say no, and might suggest something similar you could do instead, and you’ve saved me from feeling baffled and inadequate, because I just don’t know what help to ask for.
Likewise, if you want to offer me a coffee or an outing, offer a specific suggestion, even if it makes you feel like you’re being bossy, rather than trying to encourage me to decide. Even simple decisions can be rather overwhelming, some days.
“But you always seem to cheerful”
Yeah, but you haven’t seen what it costs me. Depression doesn’t mean being sad all the time. I can put on a front, when I’m with other people, but it takes a lot of energy. People with depression can laugh and enjoy stuff sometimes. It doesn’t mean that the depression is better now, or wasn’t really that bad. It just means that something is amusing me right now, or I’m pretending, so I don’t make other people uncomfortable.
Don’t mention the War!
Perhaps you’re thinking that maybe it’s better just not to mention depression. You might say something unhelpful, or you might remind me of it, when I’ve temporarily forgotten. Don’t worry too much! I live with depression from the moment I wake up every morning. It colours everything. You aren’t going to make it worse by mentioning it, trust me. It’s a big thing in my life, right now. If you never mention it, it feels a bit like you’ve forgotten, you don’t care, or you just don’t think it’s important. That makes me feel a bit rubbish.
I found similar when my Dad died. Most of my friends, in their early 20s, just didn’t know what to say, so rather than risk saying “the wrong thing”, they ended up saying nothing at all. The cumulative effect was to give the impression that my life had been turned upside down by a devastating event, but none of my friends cared enough to even acknowledge it. I’d far rather have awkward conversations about depression, than be left thinking nobody cares enough to mention it.
But it’s ok, not every conversation needs to be all about depression. I’m glad to talk about day to day stuff, and hear your news too.
My favourite was someone who came up to me in church, after I’d publicly mentioned having depression for the first time. She said, “Let me give you a hug, that will cheer you up!” As she was saying it, I could see it dawning on her how inadequate and ridiculous this was, and we both ended up laughing – then she gave me a hug, and I did at least feel cared for (and amused) Better to risk saying something stupid, than not say anything at all. I quite like stupid comments. At least it means people are trying to get past their awkwardness.
Your friend is still your friend
People with depression are all different from one another – in the same way that people with broken legs or diabetes are all different. So what helps me may not help your friend at all. I tend to seek solitude, or at least, only the company of people closest to me. I’ve seen someone else with depression seek out every church meeting and coffee morning she could find, because being home alone made things seem much darker. Your friend is still the same person they always have been.
The most helpful thing someone did for me was to sit down next to me and say in bafflement, “I just don’t know how to be a good friend to you, right now”, which lead to a really helpful conversation about what sort of support she might be able to offer.
If other people who have had depression want to comment on this, and offer alternative views of what they personally have found helpful, I suspect that would be a really good thing, and give a much more rounded picture than just my experiences.