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How to Help a Friend Who is Struggling with Depression

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UCT chapter.

To put it bluntly, depression sucks. I say this as someone who struggles with depression and has friends and family members who struggle with it as well. It’s a difficult disorder to live with, and it’s also hard to watch someone you’re close to struggle. It can also be tricky to figure out what you can do to help without any professional training on the matter, but thankfully, there are things that you can do that can make a difference.

Firstly, what is depression?

Depression, in short, is a mental illness that makes you feel low all the time, and it is difficult to recover from. It makes you lose interest in things and activities that you previously found enjoyable, and makes it very difficult to perform everyday tasks due to it draining your energy. Depression also affects everybody differently, and sometimes it’s difficult to identify depression in others as it is an invisible illness that can be hidden from the outside world. Depression affects how one feels, acts, and thinks, and therefore makes it difficult for you to function and perform as you usually would. Thankfully, depression is treatable, and there are professionals trained to help people cope with depression.

Depression and sadness are often thought of as the same, but there is a considerable difference between the two. Sadness is an emotion that is felt in reaction to a situation that causes pain or emotional upset. Depression on the other hand doesn’t always have a cause, and affects people in a longer-term, whereas sadness is a temporary feeling.

Because depression affects everybody differently, there are a wide variety of warning signs, so if you are interested in learning more, here is a linked article with a detailed list of warning signs of depression.

A quick note before I start: I am by no means a professional. Seriously, I’m just an undergraduate university student with absolutely no professional qualifications under my belt. I am just interested in spreading awareness about mental health. Because of my inexperience, all the tips I’ve given have drawn from various medical articles which have been written by or approved by mental health professional opinions. Now, with that note out of the way, let’s get into the tips of how you can potentially help a friend who may be suffering with depression.

1. Do some research about depression

In recent years there has been a lot more acceptance of talking about mental health issues such as depression, which is great as it makes people feel more comfortable talking about their experiences that were previously considered as taboo. This has made it easier to educate people about the illness, helping people cope with it better by seeking help, understand it better, and identify symptoms of the illness that they may be experiencing. Despite this, there remains a lot of misconceptions about depression that need addressing, and which are important to know if you are helping someone who is suffering.

These misconceptions include the ideas that those who struggle with depression are weak, or that they’re lazy, or that people choose to be depressed. However, these beliefs are far from the truth. Depression drains one’s energy and makes it difficult for them to function and perform daily tasks, and this shouldn’t be confused with laziness or weakness. Understanding these differences can make a huge difference for your understanding of your friend and what they are struggling with, and understanding depression as a whole will help you empathise with your friend.

Also, educating yourself on the illness takes pressure away from your friend who would’ve had to explain the illness to you, as they’ve probably had to explain it countless times to other people.

2. Know your limits

One of the first things to remember when you are trying to help someone is that you aren’t a professional, and that it isn’t your job to solve their problems. I know it can be hard because you don’t want to see them suffer, but ultimately only a medical professional can get to the root of the problem and help solve it from there. That being said, there are still lots of things you can do to help. The best thing you can do is to be their friend and to support them like a friend can, by listening to them and trying to empathise with them without judgement and without comparing your own suffering with theirs. It’s also helpful to ask them what they need from you, and you can work from there.

Spending time with your struggling friend is also a great way to help them. It might not feel like you’re accomplishing much, but just having someone who shows their love and support in small ways means the world to those who are struggling. It shows them that they aren’t alone and that there are people who care for them. I’ve personally found it very helpful to have my friends invite me out places, whether it be going out for a walk or just anywhere outside of my bedroom (where I’ve been doom-scrolling through TikTok for hours on end slowly wasting away my few remaining braincells). Sometimes your friend may decline your invitations to hang out, but don’t let that discourage you from inviting them out in the future! Depression often causes a depletion of energy, so they may feel too drained to go out, but it’s still comforting to know that the people around you care about you and want to spend time with you even in your darkest times.

3. Patience

It can be easy to become frustrated with a friend who has depression as it might seem like your depressed friend is just ignoring your advice on bettering themself or that they aren’t even trying to. Remember that this isn’t the case. Sometimes it can feel impossible to get out of a depressive episode, because even small tasks, such as showering or going for a short walk, take a lot of energy, and those experiencing depression have had their energy drained already. Accordingly, your friend isn’t ignoring your advice – they just don’t have the energy to follow it.

A common misconception about depression is that overcoming it requires a simple change of mindset, that one can overcome their illness simply by thinking more positive, and oh how I wish it could be so simple! Unfortunately, one can’t just “snap out” of their depression, nor can they “tough it out”, or change how they feel; often getting out of a depressive episode requires professional help and time.

Additionally, recovery from depression can take a very long time, depending on the person, but it’s easier to recover when you have a support system around you. Depression makes one feel incredibly isolated and alone, and this can be worsened if people abandon them because of their mental health issues. Some may feel that their depressed friends are pushing them away, but this is usually because they feel like their depression is a burden on others. Having people stick by them, no matter the circumstances, to show their unconditional love and support does wonders for recovery.

4. Take care of yourself

It can be tempting to dedicate all your time to trying to help your friend and to support them, and that’s natural as you want to see them get better. However, it is important to take care of yourself and your needs first, and to prioritise your own health and well-being. Healthline explains this well:

“If you put all your energy into supporting your friend, you’ll have very little left for yourself. And if you’re feeling burned out or frustrated, you won’t be much help to your friend.”

It’s so important to take your own mental well-being into account, as you want to make sure that you yourself don’t become overwhelmed, frustrated, or burnt out. It’s also okay to ask for help from other friends or family member if you feel overwhelmed. If you feel like your friend needs more support, try and encourage them to seek professional help. Remember, it is your job to be their friend, and that is more than enough!

If you or a loved one is struggling, here are some accessible resources to reach out to:

SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) UCT Student Careline for Mental Health – (080) 024 2526 or SMS 31393

UCT Student Wellness Service – (021) 650 1020/17

SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) – 080 021 2223 or 0800 567 567 or https://www.sadag.org/

Akeso Crisis Hotline – 0861 435 787 or https://www.akeso.co.za/

Lifeline South Africa – (086) 132 2322 or http://lifelinesa.co.za/

South African Federation for Mental Health – (086) 558 6909 or https://www.safmh.org/

Triangle Project – (021) 712 6699 or https://triangle.org.za/

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