“I tried to listen, but like he says, I wasn't really hearing him,” Erin Schwantner writes about her brother in a recent CNN article. “He was becoming increasingly depressed, but I continued to reassure him that everything would be OK and that there was nothing wrong with him. I wish I could go back.”
Erin lost her brother Evan to suicide in 2010 and has since devoted herself to educating others about depression and the warning signs of suicide. Erin confides in her readers, sharing her anguish and regret, about how she didn’t know then what she knows now about depression and mental illness.
As I read Erin’s story—Evan’s story, really—I felt her regret acutely, as if it were my own. The truth is, we all share Erin’s loss and there are many others who are suffering from mental illness and depression who too need our understanding.
Mental illness comes in many forms, with a multitude of manifestations—there is no typical victim. Those who suffer from depression can be our neighbors, our friends, our family members—it could be you and me.
We all want to be a friend to our loved ones who are suffering from depression, but most of us don’t know how. Clinical psychologist Dr. Greg Bottaro and clinical psychotherapist Mia Adler Ozair offer tips on how to be there for a friend who is suffering from depression.
1. Be Patient.
Patience can be one of the greatest challenges of being a friend to people who suffer from depression. In our frustration we ask ourselves, "Why isn't she feeling better?" "Is he just not trying?" "Does she even want my help?"
Ozair reminds us that sleep patterns, moods, and interest in regular activity can be inconsistent and unpredictable for those who suffer from depression. As a result, our caring intentions can be poorly received, but this should not deter us! Ozair points out that “checking on your friend during a depression is essential—both to show you care and to ensure your friend is safe from harm.” It’s important that we keep up our efforts to be supportive and not take it personally.
2. Be a Listener.
How often do we worry that, “There is nothing I can say,” or “There is nothing I can do”? According to Bottaro, that is actually not a problem at all.
“There is nothing I can say!”
“First and foremost your friend needs someone to listen,” explains Bottaro. Many of us think that it is important to be able to relate to our friend’s situation, that by drawing comparisons between a situation in your life and your friend's you are better able to empathize. But Bottaro says that this is not in fact the case. “The more you relate in conversation the less empathy you are actually using,” he says. Still, he explains, you can help your friend by listening with empathy. “Empathy means to put yourself in someone else’s shoes . . . That is very different from thinking your shoes and your friend’s are the same.”
Bottaro suggests that we try to understand, “How does this feel for my friend, what’s it like to be him/her, as he/she is experiencing it?” And then verbalize to your friend that you hear what is being said and can feel what that must feel like.
“There is nothing I can do!”
Don’t try to be the one to fix the problem. “We often think we are helping by being practical,” says Bottaro. “Sometimes if someone is just in a rut, a little practical advice can go a long way. But, for the most part, a person with depression is not just 'in a rut.' Your friend is actually experiencing a chemical imbalance in the brain and may need professional help.” Your role as a friend is to be a listener and it does more than you know.
3. Be Alert.
We want to know, "How do I know when I should seek help?" Bottaro and Ozair tell us that to be aware, you should do a little research and not be afraid to ask your friend questions.
Ozair tells us that being there for someone who is suffering from depression means you need to do your homework. “The more you understand the nature of depression and the various kinds that exist, the better you will be able to support your friend and watch for key things that may indicate the problem is more severe than just 'having the blues,'" explains Ozair.
Once you know what to look for, be alert for personality shifts, odd behaviors, and other changes that might be signs of worsening depression or suicidal thinking. Bottaro tells us not to be afraid to ask our loved ones questions. “Just simply ask, 'Do you think about hurting or killing yourself?'” Bottaro explains. “Often the thought is a 'cry for help,' and simply having someone know how bad it really is will answer that need.” But Bottaro says that if you discover your friend is experiencing suicidal thoughts, this should never be taken lightly and is a clear indication that you should seek help. Bottom line is, when in doubt, seek help. Ozair advises that if your friend is struggling for more than one week without relief, it is appropriate to contact a professional for help.
4. Be Proactive.
Seeking help can be intimidating for a friend who is suffering from depression, but Bottaro explains that having a friend to accompany them in the search can be very helpful. There are counselors, therapists, and psychologists that can provide simple screening measures to see how severe the depression is and if clinical intervention is recommended. This may include talk therapy or even medication, but a respected professional opinion is required.
Considering May is Mental Health Awareness Month, now is a better time than ever to take this opportunity to be informed and become a better friend.
Photo by Regina Leah