How to Support Someone Who’s Depressed Without Judgment
If you’re a concerned friend, you’d want the tools to help them and say the right things, right?
Khefren Sackey, MA, CTACC, is a career coach who works with a Chicago nonprofit dedicated to helping dislocated and low-income adults find jobs. Khefren is also a CTA-certified Life Coach that enjoys improving the lives of others through coaching and developing resumes that expand career opportunities.
I can recall times when a friend of mine in the Virgin Islands would walk past me, and the same conversation would happen each time:
Me: “What’s good? Everything bless?”
Friend: “Yeah man, everything safe.”
But everything wasn’t “safe.” It turns out my friend was depressed, and he just didn’t mention it. I couldn’t blame him, though. The “autopilot” nature of that particular greeting process, combined with the stigma of mental health in our society, among other things, leaves many people unwilling to talk about how they’re feeling.
We misunderstand depression, and it exists on a spectrum of two extremes: on one side, a person may be in low spirits or simply be having a bad day. On the other side of the spectrum, depression can make everyday tasks harder to complete and can even prove to be life-threatening. Mental health professionals categorize the latter as clinical depression, and watching a friend go through the latter can be an extremely tough experience.
If you’re a concerned friend, you’d want the tools to help them and say the right things, right? One of your fears might be saying something insensitive or making things worse by saying the wrong thing, so you decide to say nothing. And you may even get so caught up in constructing the perfect set of words that you psych yourself out.
Unfortunately, the hard truth is that there is no “one size fits all” when it comes to depression. Be it depression rooted in a long-standing problem or a person seemingly in a perpetual low mood, there is no such thing as “the perfect thing to say.” However, there are several different things that you, as a friend, can do to provide support to someone experiencing depression. Fortunately, it’s not the end of the world.
If you have a friend who is currently depressed–or becomes depressed often–adopt the following:
1. Be patient. Being patient can actually be considered a prerequisite of sorts. A little-known fact to many is that there’s no such thing as a time limit when supporting the improvement of someone’s subjective well-being. People get frustrated with a person who’s depressed and can exhibit traits–like impatience–that can affect the health of a person’s immune system, making things worse than before. Simply put, pressing anyone with a problem to “get over it” invalidates their experience and does nothing to help them on their journey to recovery.
If you want to be there for someone, you’ll need a lot of patience. People who are depressed often need time to gather their thoughts and understand their feelings before they even think about talking to others. And having a friend who is patient with them can have powerful results.
2. Listen. Listen a lot. Listening is essential to everyday communication, but it can often go underappreciated and underused. Listening to someone who’s depressed is the single best thing you can do for them. It’s true for many reasons. When a person is depressed, it’s typically accompanied by overwhelming feelings bottled up inside them. Creating a space for anybody to discharge those strong emotions can provide them with needed relief. The act is even better when you, as the supporter, actively paraphrase and reflect their thoughts back to them accurately.
It’s important to ask questions too. Asking questions allows people to explore their thoughts more deeply, giving them greater clarity and letting them know you’re listening attentively and caring. Being attentive allows your friend to speak freely and allows for a genuinely cathartic experience.
3. Be present. Listening is important, but it isn’t enough to simply listen for that person to feel comfortable. Show them with non-verbal cues that you’re also listening. Lean toward them when they’re talking, and give the occasional nod to show understanding. The best form of validation you can offer is displaying body language that supports that you are paying attention to them.
4. Refrain from judgments and criticisms. In psychology, a term called “unconditional positive regard” encapsulates the very essence of non-judgemental listening. If your goal is to support someone who’s depressed, they must be allowed a space where they can speak freely, without fear of being judged or criticized for their thought processes, decisions, and actions. It’s especially important to notice phrases and comments that fall under this category. Saying things like “all of this is just in your head, everything will get better soon” may seem like an uplifting gesture. Still, it indirectly invalidates the person’s situation by undermining its importance to the individual. Worse yet, it can indirectly criticize them by suggesting they were foolish to have specific thoughts they shared in confidence.
5. Avoid giving advice. Really. It can be anyone’s first instinct to help a friend in need by offering immediate insight and directives to solve the problem. Again, your intentions may appear good in theory, but they pose several challenges. The most pressing of these challenges is that it can be yet another invalidating process.
Someone with depression has likely been wrestling with it for years. For you to come along believing you can solve their problem in mere moments is not only ludicrous, but you’ve now created an unwelcoming space for them to discharge their emotions.
Seriously, practice listening. It’s much more valuable to someone dealing with depression. Trust me on that. Supporting a friend can be a refreshing experience. It can be challenging at times, but it’s important to pay attention to your own needs and take care of yourself. You stand to be more helpful if you're in a good place mentally.
Featured image by The Mom Trotter.
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