1) Don’t try to give them advice. I know this is coming from an owl who gives depressed people advice! But I only do that for people who have asked for it. Unless they specifically say to you, “What do you think about all this?” or “What do you think I should do?” then advice is not really what they’re looking for, and you don’t need to feel like you have to come up with any.
2) Don’t try to guess what they’re feeling, or why they feel that way. The best case scenario is that you are right, but they didn’t figure it out for themselves, so it probably won’t sink in! The worst case scenario is that you are wrong, and you have inadvertently shut them out of the conversation. Either way, you haven’t really helped. Of course, if they ask for your insight, that’s a different story!
3) Ask questions! And then be quiet until they are done talking. Give them just a little bit longer to go on than you would in an ordinary conversation. There is a good chance that they have things they need to say, but are reluctant to talk about. Maybe you feel awkward during silences, but they need those silences to work up the courage to keep talking.
4) Maybe you know something about their condition. Maybe you even share it! But you are not talking about their condition (unless for some reason you are); you are talking about their feelings, and their experiences. Empathy is very powerful, but don’t let the conversation become about you or what you know.
5) They might try to deflect the conversation by bringing your feelings into it: “Sorry for bringing you down,” “I don’t want to make you worry, I’m fine,” “This must be really boring, let’s talk about something else,” that sort of thing. They are probably not doing that because they really want to change the subject, but because opening up is hard, and maybe they feel like they don’t deserve to. Gently reassure them that you are fine, their problems are not boring, and that you want to help and you are still listening. If you do that, and they still try to deflect, you can just ask them, “Do you really want to change the subject? It’s okay, we don’t have to keep talking about this if you don’t want to.” But make sure it’s clear that that choice is about their feelings, not yours.
6) Things that are obvious to you are not obvious to them. You know that they are fun to be around! You know that it’s okay for them to make mistakes! You know that having a bad day doesn’t make them a bad person! But they don’t know that. These are good things to point out.
7) You are going to have to repeat yourself a lot. This is because their thoughts are repeating themselves a lot! Depression is at least partly fueled by self-destructive thought patterns, which means they are falling into the same thought-traps over and over again. Please try not to get frustrated. They are not doing it on purpose.
8) It is important to establish boundaries. Being around depressed people can be very draining. And if you make yourself constantly available to them, there is a good chance that they will start to rely on your support in an unhealthy way! That is not good for you, them, or your relationship. It is okay to say, “I love you! I wish you weren’t feeling this way! But I can’t really deal with this right now. Please do something nice for yourself, okay? I will talk to you tomorrow!” They might be a little hurt to be turned away at first, but ultimately it is for the best.
9) Understand that you do not have the power to break them out of their destructive thought patterns. Only they can do that. They will have a hard time internalizing what you say, and they probably won’t take your advice (assuming you even gave them any). And that’s okay. You are just trying to support them! They can do anything they want with that support.
10) Please don’t be disheartened by what looks to you like a lack of progress. I know it can be hard not to feel like you aren’t making any difference. But your kindness and patience are so powerful. People struggling with depression know how hard they sometimes are to be around. The fact that you are trying at all means more than you think.
I just want to say that I am not any kind of therapist; I am just a girl on the internet who draws owls. But I get a lot of questions from people who want to take better care of their depressed friends and family, but don’t know how! So I hope this has been useful to some of you out there!