Double-Edged Sword: How to Identify the Symptoms of Depression in Your Friends

Edited by Sophia Savva

Sometimes, it can feel like everyone in university is happy all the time. It seems like everyone is linking arms with their friends while they walk through King’s circle or exchanging smiles with unfamiliar students in class or running between club meetings and parties and events and hangouts. Nevertheless, this facade of happiness can sometimes be just that: a facade.

We have been told countless times that university is one of the best times of our lives, but what we rarely hear is that it is also one of the most stressful times of our lives. Dealing with deadlines, jobs, club positions, learning how to “adult” for the first time, and trying to fit in, is stressful! And it is even worse when students face other challenges, like mental illness and disabilities in a neurotypical and ableist world. 

Depression is one of the many unspoken and unseen parts of university life, and it’ll only take one look at the UofT Confessions Facebook page to see how prevalent it really is. It can get especially bad in the freezing slump of Toronto winter, with seasonal-affective disorder. 

Recognizing whether your friends or loved ones are struggling with depression is the first step to breaking the facade of happiness and being able to meaningfully help. Yet, depression is a double-edged sword, meaning it presents itself differently (and even paradoxically) in different people. Here are a few of depression’s double-edged signs to look for in your friends and loved ones.

1. Sleeping too much // Sleeping too little

Depression is exhausting, and a lot of students find that they want to spend more time in bed because they lack the energy to get up and start the day. On the other hand, the intrusive thoughts that come with depression make falling asleep difficult. This contradiction can mess up sleep schedules, as your friend may be sleeping later and finding it difficult to wake up and get to class the next morning. This might be a hard one to distinguish as university students already have pretty bad sleep schedules, as we pull all-nighters to study or party or both, but a huge change in either direction might be worth noticing. 

Solution #1:

Find ways to motivate your friend to wake up earlier. Maybe make a plan to get breakfast or walk to class together. One of my favourite things to do with my friend is to go watch the sunrise at the harbourfront once in a while. If this poses to be too difficult, find easier ways like helping them decide an aesthetic outfit to wear in the morning, even something that small is motivation. 

Solution #2:

For sleeping late, understand it is more difficult than simply “going to bed earlier.” Let them know that they can call you if they are spiralling in their thoughts at night. To mitigate the insomnia, recommend some form of physical activity, like going to the gym together, because physical exhaustion can be a good sleeping pill at times. Taking melatonin supplements is also a good way to help regulate sleep. 

 

2. Losing weight // Gaining weight

Similarly, if you notice a change in your friend’s appetite, this is a crucial symptom of depression. It can manifest in a smaller appetite, because depression makes eating much more difficult. Students might find it harder to finish their meals, they may eat less at the dining hall, or skip meals altogether. Conversely, you might notice them gravitating more towards “comfort” foods, including processed sugars and snacks. It might be the case of not seeing your friend eat a salad or any full nutritious meal, but crave a tub of ice cream later on. 

Solution #1:

Food is a tricky topic to bring up, as you don’t know people’s relationships or struggles with it. Try gently asking your friend whether they’ve been eating, or ask them out to dinner to get their favourite food. If they find eating overwhelming, suggest ‘easy’ foods, like chicken nuggets or soups or sandwiches While this may sound weird, eating ‘easy’ and ‘simple’ foods is a way to make sure your friend is getting the nutrition they need in their slump. 

Solution #2: 

For the comfort foods, this can be even more difficult to bring up. Sometimes, you need to approach the situation like you would with a younger child. Encourage your friend to eat something healthy before they eat something comforting. Even if you cannot get them to change their eating & drinking habits, try not to enable them. Maybe even invite them over to bake some treats made out of healthy alternatives. 

 

3. Heightened energy (mania) // Lowered energy (fatigue)

These symptoms are much harder to distinguish, but an observant eye will do the trick! Mania is described as periods of extreme energy and euphoria, and is not often associated with depression. What this means is that your friend might feel themselves reaching greater highs and achieving extreme feelings of happiness. While this doesn’t sound bad, it is dangerous because it is just that: an extreme. It may lead to an increase in reckless or impulsive behaviour, and they will eventually crash into a state of fatigued depression. And as the highs can be really high, the lows can be seriously low. If you notice your friend feeling down despite feeling “happy emotions” just prior, they might be feeling a crash! 

Solution #1:

Try and protect your friend from their recklessness. While you are in no way responsible to take care of them or their actions, there are ways to help them while they try and take care of themselves. Again, do not enable their recklessness; try not to let them drown themselves in alcohol or drugs or even financial recklessness. Instead, support them with love and company, and let them know you will be there when they crash. 

Solution #2:

Often, students need more care when they are in their ‘low’ stage than their manic stage, so this is the best time to be there for your friend. Support them with nice out-of-the-blue texts, send them a small care package, or just have a movie night together. They will thank you for it. Sometimes, even giving them space if they wish for it can help both you and them not get clouded with negative thoughts. 

 

4. Isolation // Clinginess 

This is one of the easier ones to notice. If you notice your friend pull away socially, whether this is cancelling on parties, talking or texting less, or isolating themselves in their dorm room, this is a red flag! They may find spending time with others more difficult than before, or even fall into a spiral of paranoia that they aren’t loved or appreciated. This spiral can have another consequence, however; you may notice your friend pull even closer, wanting to spend more and more time with you. This is most common in extroverts experiencing depression, they may feel suffocated by their own thoughts if they are by themselves for long. This can make it feel like they are ‘clinging’ on more.  

Solution #1: 

If your friend tends to isolate themselves, do not assume that they don’t want to hang out with you! Do NOT stop asking them to hang out, do NOT stop inviting them to parties, do NOT isolate them even more. Usually, this isolation stems from the fear that their friends or loved ones do not actually like them, and they may make the space they believe everyone already wants. Reassure that you are there to keep them company, and address their fears. 

Solution #2:

Clinginess can be tiring, both for you and your friend! They may be constantly reaching out, and this can be admittedly overwhelming. Remember to take care of yourself before you attempt to help your friend. Start reaching compromises, like getting one meal together, or going to the library together so that you are both doing your own thing but in a common space. Recommend some hobbies to keep them occupied without the need for another person. 

 

5. Anxiety and stress // Numbness and nonchalance 

Anxiety and depression are close friends, they can come hand-in-hand. Like with mania, depression can manifest in periods of intense anxiety or stress, and you might see this in the form of panic attacks, meltdowns, crying, shivers, or other physical sensations. Depression can exaggerate thoughts and blow them out of proportion that may lead to this stage, and it is likely very overwhelming. If it happens in private, it might be the case that your friend will not reach out in shame or embarrassment, and in public, they might try to hide their feelings or isolate themselves. If you are paying attention, however, the onset gets easier to spot. The flip side is numbness: depression can be experienced as a lack of feeling. Your friend might find themselves feeling empty or numb, with a general melancholy that is difficult to pinpoint, and even more difficult to explain. This may present itself in a general nonchalance about grades, future goals, and a loss of pleasure from activities that used to interest them. Sometimes, the numbness can be worse than the mania. 

Solution #1: 

Help them find ways to de-stress. Have a spa day, or recommend them mindfulness apps like “Calm” or “SAM" (Self-help for Anxiety Management). If they are having a panic attack, follow the three Do’s: DO stay with them, DO help them remember to breathe deeply, DO let them know it is temporary and you will be there for them while it happens. If it gets worse, ask them if they need you to call for extra help, and do not hesitate to contact campus police or 911 if it escalates. 

Solution #2:

With numbness, the best thing to do is find situations where you and your friend can experience emotion. Go to a comedy show, watch a sad romance movie, do something that scares the both of you. Any emotion, positive or negative, is helpful. Recommend one of the hundreds of clubs at UofT to your friend, so that they can find something that will engage them and help them feel passionate again. Or, ask them if they have goals for the future; help them set some if they don’t. 

 

NOTE:

University is a stressful time for everyone, and for that reason it is so important that you take care of YOURSELF first. It is difficult to be there for your friends if it is going to affect you negatively. Remember that helping out does not mean that you are responsible for your friend, your significant other, or your loved one who is going through pain. All you can be is a support system for them while they’re dealing with their depression. Therefore, it is not your prerogative to commit yourself to doing every single one of these solutions. These are just starting pointers for some of the many varied symptoms of depression that may manifest itself in students at UofT. Often, one solution can be used to help to appease a multitude of problems, and I have purposefully included many to ensure at least one tip will prove to be feasible for everybody. The best thing you can do for your friend is to recommend that they seek out help, by accessing one of the many mental health services on or off campus. Starting at the health and wellness centre is always a good idea. 

 

UofT has a wide variety of mental health services. If you or anyone you know are suffering from depression, reach out to at least one of the support systems found here or here. Seek the help you need, depression should not be fought alone.