Depression is a common mental illness. Every year, it affects at least 5% of adults worldwide. It’s likely that at some point, one or more of your friends will have depression.
As a friend, it can be difficult to know how best to support someone with this condition. You may be afraid of saying the wrong thing or making them feel worse. In this article, you’ll learn how to recognize depression in a friend, how to support them, and some common pitfalls to avoid.
- How to talk to a friend with depression
- Common mistakes to avoid
- When to seek urgent help
- Recognizing the signs of depression
- Common questions
As a friend of someone with depression, your role is to listen, encourage them to get help, and consistently show them how much you value them and their friendship. At the same time, you’ll need to maintain firm boundaries and take care of yourself.
Here are some tips that might be useful if you’re trying to support and talk to someone with depression.
If you learn more about depression, you may be in a better position to understand what your friend is going through. This can make it easier to support them.
Here are some resources to check out if you don’t know much about depression:
- Healthline has a useful guide to types of depression, including bipolar disorder, depression with psychotic features, and postpartum depression
- The National Alliance on Mental illness has a guide to depression plus a blog that includes personal stories from people living with this condition
- Psychology Today has several in-depth articles about depression
Take the initiative and start a conversation about how they feel. If your friend appears to have depression but isn’t diagnosed or hasn’t acknowledged it, this can be a first step to getting them the help they need.
It can help to use “I” rather than “you” statements. Share something you’ve observed rather than making assumptions about how they feel.
For example, you could say, “I’ve noticed that you don’t laugh or smile much these days, and we haven’t hung out as often as usual. Is everything OK?”
Avoid phrases that could come across as judgmental, such as “You’re not much fun anymore” or “You never want to see me anymore,” even if you believe them, because they could put your friend on the defensive.
Make it clear that you care about your friend; this may help them to feel less alone. For example, you could say, “I just want you to know that I want to be there for you,” or “You matter a lot to me, and I want to support you.”
If your friend wants to talk to you about their depression, it’s important that you listen carefully. By listening, you’ll learn more about what they’re thinking, how they feel, and what kind of support they need from you.
Here are a few listening tips:
- Use friendly, attentive body language. For example, lean forward slightly when they speak, maintain eye contact, and nod occasionally to encourage them to keep talking.
- Try not to jump to any conclusions. Pay attention to what your friend is actually saying, not what you expect them to say next.
- Put your phone away. Give your friend your full attention.
- Do not interrupt.
- Use prompts to encourage your friend to keep talking. For example, you could say “Uh huh,” “Mm,” or “And then what happened?”
Tell your friend that even if they don’t want to talk about their depression right now, they can reach out to you if and when they want a listening ear. Do not push your friend to talk if they don’t want to open up.
Read our article on how to be a better listener for in-depth advice.
When your friend opens up to you, try to show them some empathy. Respect and acknowledge their feelings.
One way to show empathy is by summarising what your friend has said, using your own words. This shows that you’re listening and also gives them a chance to clear up any misunderstandings. Focus on the feelings you’ve picked up from your friend as well as the facts.
For example, if they’ve been telling you that everyday chores are a struggle, you might say, “So it sounds like you’ve been feeling very overwhelmed lately?”
If your friend doesn’t already have a diagnosis of depression but is showing the signs, it’s a good idea to suggest that they get some outside help.
Your support will probably mean a lot to your friend. But, to get well, they will probably need some support from a doctor or therapist. They might also benefit from calling local or national helplines for emotional support or information about dealing with depression.
You cannot force someone to get professional help, but you can encourage them to at least think about it. We have an in-depth guide on how to convince a friend to go to therapy.
Social withdrawal is a common symptom of depression. If your friend doesn’t seem interested in socializing, you might assume that they don’t care whether or not you invite them out.
But sometimes, people with depression feel even more isolated and misunderstood if their friends stop inviting them. Your friend might often or always say “No thanks,” but your offers could mean a lot to them.
You may have to change the type of activities you do together. Think about what your friend needs. For example, fatigue is a common symptom of depression. If your friend often feels tired, inviting them to grab a coffee for an hour might be more realistic than asking them to spend the whole day with you.
It can help to make low-pressure plans that don’t require your friend to make a commitment in advance. For example, you could say, “Hey, me and Sarah are going to check out the farmers’ market this afternoon. If you’d like to come, we could pick you up around 3? No worries if you don’t feel like it.”
Depression can make it hard to cope with everyday tasks, such as housework and grocery shopping. But if your friend is struggling to cope, they may not reach out. People with depression often feel worthless.They sometimes avoid asking for help because they are afraid to be a burden.
Take the initiative and offer to lend a hand with specific tasks. For example, if all their clothes look dirty, you could say, “Would you like me to help out a bit with the laundry?”
Your friend might feel more comfortable accepting help if you make it clear that you won’t have to go out of your way to lend a hand. For example, instead of saying, “Do you want me to take you grocery shopping this week?” you could say, “I’m going to the store tomorrow for a few things. Would you like to come along? I’ll pick you up on the way.”
Some people with depression find it helpful to hear other peoples’ experiences. If you’ve been depressed, it may help to open up and tell your story.
But don’t just start talking about yourself, as this could make you come across as self-centered and insensitive. Give your friend a choice. If they don’t want to talk about your experiences right now, don’t take it personally.
For example, you could say something like, “As you know, I had depression a few years ago. If you’d ever like me to tell you about it and the treatments I tried, let me know.”
Providing emotional support to a friend with depression can be emotionally draining. It can help to set boundaries and limits. For example, if your friend tends to call you late in the evening for support when they feel anxious or lonely, you might decide that you won’t be available to talk on the phone past 9 p.m.
You might feel guilty for setting boundaries if your friend is in a lot of emotional pain, but you need to look after your own mental health too.
Our guide to setting boundaries with friends has detailed advice on how to take care of your own needs and set limits in a relationship.
When you’re supporting a friend with depression, you can’t expect to say or do the right thing all the time. It’s normal to slip up occasionally. But it may help you to feel more confident if you know which common pitfalls to avoid.
Depression isn’t an excuse for abusive behavior, but it can make someone more irritable or short-tempered than usual. When your friend appears grumpy, abrupt, or angry for no apparent reason, don’t assume that you’ve done anything wrong.
However, for your own peace of mind, it may help to ask whether you’ve done something to upset them. For example, you could say, “I feel as though I’ve upset you somehow. Have I?” If they say no, and there’s no other obvious explanation for their mood, you might need to accept that their depression is the underlying reason.
Platitudes are generic statements that are supposed to be reassuring but usually come across as insensitive and belittling.
Here are some examples of platitudes to avoid when talking to a friend with depression:
- “It could always be worse.”
- “You just need to think positively. Cheer up!”
- “You’ll come out of this a stronger person.”
If you aren’t sure what to say to your friend, it may feel easier to fall back on platitudes. But it’s usually better to admit that you don’t know how to respond. For example, you could say, “I don’t know the right words to say, but that sounds really hard to deal with, and I’m sorry that you’re so sad.”
Do not tell your friend that they are lucky compared to people with more severe depression. Comparisons such as “Well, at least you’re not like Sarah, she can’t even hold down a job!” are invalidating and hurtful.
Comparisons can also make your friend feel guilty, which can make them feel even worse about themselves. For example, they might think, “My depression doesn’t seem bad, compared to what other people go through. I’m just being self-centered. I’m wasting everyone’s time.”
When your friend is suffering, it’s tempting to give them advice that might solve their problem and make them feel better. For example, you may have read that eating a healthy diet is good for depression, and you think that your friend should hear about it.
But as a general rule, it’s not usually a good idea to make unsolicited suggestions. Research suggests that well-meaning but unwanted advice can actually make someone feel worse. Focus on listening to your friend instead. Remember, it isn’t your job to fix your friend’s depression.
Respect your friend’s choices when it comes to treatment. For example, you might not think medication is the best solution, but if your friend wants to try it, don’t try talking them out of it. Trust your friend (and any professionals they are working with) to make their own decisions.
Don’t expect your friend to get better quickly. Most treatments, including medication and therapy, may take a few weeks to start working.
Avoid making comments that could come across as judgmental or pressuring. For example, it wouldn’t be helpful to say, “How long have you been taking your medication? Shouldn’t it be making a difference by now?”
Some people with clinical depression may become suicidal. It’s important that you are familiar with the signs that someone is planning to end their life and that you know how to access help in an emergency.
A suicidal person may talk about feeling trapped, death and dying, being in emotional pain, being a burden on others.
Their behavior may change too; they might start using alcohol or drugs more often, giving away important possessions, isolating themselves, or researching methods of suicide. Other signs to watch out for include increased irritability or a sudden improvement in mood.
If you think your friend may attempt suicide, ask them directly whether they are thinking of ending their life. You might have heard that talking about suicide increases the risk, but research shows the opposite is true.
The National Institute of Mental Health has an in-depth guide that explains what to do if you think or know that a loved one is in crisis. The American Foundation For Suicide Prevention also has a useful guide to risk factors and warning signs of suicide.
Call the emergency services if your friend is in immediate danger. While waiting for the services to arrive, make sure someone stays with your friend at all times. If possible, remove anything dangerous from the environment, such as medications, knives, or firearms.
It’s not always obvious when someone is suffering from depression. Some people are good at masking their feelings and manage to keep doing their usual tasks. This is sometimes known as “hidden depression” or “smiling depression.”
However, depression often does cause noticeable symptoms. Here are the signs of depression to look for in a friend:
- Social withdrawal
- Noticeable weight loss or weight gain
- Lack of interest in hobbies and activities they used to enjoy
- Problems making decisions
- Problems with concentration and memory
- Changes to sleeping patterns
- Increased substance misuse
- Complaints of aches, pains, and other physical problems that don’t have an obvious cause
- A more negative outlook on life/uncharacteristic pessimism
- Slower movements, speech, or thoughts
- Agitation, which might manifest as fidgeting or restlessness
- Poor personal hygiene
- Mentions of suicide and death
Depression can show up in lots of ways, and your friend may not show all of these signs. For example, some people with depression become quiet and withdrawn, whereas others pretend to the outside world that they are fine while secretly feeling low and hopeless.
Exercise can help relieve depression, and it doesn’t have to be high-impact. Spending time in nature can also boost a person’s mood. Scheduling and doing a previously-enjoyed activity can help. This strategy is called behavioral activation.
Reassure your friend that their feelings are valid, and remind them that you care. It can also help to remind them of their own strengths. For example, you could say, “It sounds like you’ve had an extremely tough day. I know it doesn’t feel like it, but you are doing so well, and I’m proud of you.”