When A Friend Has Depression, Try This

by Mary Katherine
Originally Published: 
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I’ve heard it said that if you drop a frog into water and slowly turn up the heat, it’ll stay in the pot.

It just swims around, completely oblivious of the danger, until it boils. A pretty morbid picture, to be sure…but it’s the best way I can explain my bout with clinical depression.

My first year of college, I went from being a sunny, happy girl to devastatingly sad. Out of nowhere, basic tasks became cumbersome monsters. Taking a shower felt like running a marathon. Going to class, an impossible task. It took a while for me to get the help I needed, but eventually I wound up in a psychiatrist’s office.

I sat in front of that doctor, and the tears poured out. I told her all about the oppressing sadness that had come from seemingly nowhere, consuming my life. She listened and nodded and diagnosed me with clinical depression.

I was the frog all along. My brain chemistry was the pot. The water had been changing for a while, and I never even realized it.

Thankfully, I am on the other side of that depression now. It took a while — but I made it. Now, when I look back on that dark season of my life, what strikes me most isn’t how my mental illness impacted me. It’s how my mental illness affected my friendships.

Instead of loving me in my sadness, many of my friends tried to minimize it, fix it, or pretend it didn’t exist. I don’t resent them for this; I know it was confusing to watch me suffer and not know how to respond. If could go back in time and tell them how to help, I would. But that season has passed, so today I’m sharing that advice with you. Maybe we can help someone who is suffering now. Loving a person with depression doesn’t have to be complicated, if you keep a few things in mind.

Don’t take their sadness personally.

If your friend broke their leg and required surgery, you’d probably have a whole lot of empathy for their grouchiness, irritability, and all around pity-partying. After all, you wouldn’t take it personally because your friend is in pain. Generally speaking, we have grace for visible illnesses. Well, depression may be invisible, but it hurts nonetheless. If your friend is unpleasant to be around, or seems disinterested in your company, please remember not to take it personally. They are legitimately sick, and the road to recovery is hard. It’s not about you, I promise.

Don’t try to “fix” your friend.

Depression is hard. Not only on the sufferer, but on their loved ones as well. Sometimes, if you think something is “broken,” you may feel the urge to try and fix it. Listen to me, friends: Resist. That. Feeling. These efforts are often the most mangled in their execution, and can also cause the most damage.

I had friends tell me that I needed to “count my blessings” and remember how blessed my life was. That made me feel like dirt, considering the underlying assumption was that I was ungrateful. I had friends tell me that if I just “exercised,” I would be able to pull through my funk. That made me feel ashamed, like I was lazy. It also neglected to consider that I was physically fatigued — a symptom of my diagnosable illness.

I didn’t need or want my friends to try and “fix me.” I had doctors trying to do that. What I wanted was simply this: my friends, no strings attached. Which leads me to my last bit of advice…

Be the friend you always have been.

Your friend is sick. It’s that simple. They still want you in their life, and they still want to be treated like a normal human being. Treat them the way you would any other sick friend. Offer to grab a coffee for them or make them some soup. Drop by and do a load of laundry, if you have time. (That one is huge, I tell you. HUGE.) Check in with a text — even if you don’t get a response right away. Talk to them about anything else that’s going on in your life, because they’d probably love to hear it.

Treat your friend like they are just as valuable and just as interesting as they’ve always been. Because they are.

Treat them like their presence in your life is cherished. Because it is.

In short, be the friend you have always been.

One of my favorite writers, Brené Brown has this to say about friendship: “I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles.”

Maybe that’s what it all comes down to — loving people for their strengths and struggles. Not despite them.

For them.

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