8 ways you can help friends who are depressed (without making them feel worse)

Depression is becoming increasingly common. Many of us are on antidepressants or know of someone who is. And although we are in one way or another so familiar with depression, it’s extremely difficult for most of us to handle the condition ourselves and others who are depressed.

For people who don’t suffer from depression, it’s very difficult to understand a person’s inability to experience basic joy. We tend to say to such people: “What do you have to be so sad about?”

Writing on TED Ideas, Bill Bernat says this approach is not helpful.

Bernat started struggling with depression as an eight-year-old and says he lives pretty well with his bipolar today.

He reminds us that depression doesn’t diminish a person’s desire to connect with other people, just their ability.

Here’s the thing:

There’s a chasm between people who suffer from depression and those who don’t. As Bernat explains: On the one side are people with depression who may act in off-putting or confusing ways because they’re fighting a war in their head that nobody else can see, and on the other side is everyone else and they’re asking, “Why you gotta be so depressed?”

With experience on both sides of this chasm and having spoken to others who live with depression Bernat offers the following advice to help us overcome this chasm and deal with friends and family who live with depression in a compassionate way.

1. Don’t say “Just get over it” or “Pull yourself together”.

The problem with this statement is that you are not saying anything the depressed person doesn’t know and hasn’t tried.

The inability to “just get over it” is depression. Depression is an illness, so it’s no different from telling someone with a broken ankle or cancer to “just get over it.”

2. Don’t insist that the things which make other people feel better will work for your depressed friend.

For example, you cannot cure clinical depression by eating ice cream or going to the movies.

3. Don’t take it personally if the person responds negatively to your advice.

When you are in a dark place where you hate yourself and your life, nothing anybody says helps. It’s not you. The most you can do is to let the person know you care.

4. Don’t think that being sad and being OK are incompatible.

“Please don’t let our lack of bubbly happiness freak you out,” says Bernat. In fact, it’s possible to be sad and OK at the exact same time, he explains.

Here is his key point:

“TV, movies, popular songs and even people tell us if we’re not happy, there’s something wrong. We’re taught that sadness is unnatural, and we must resist it. In truth, it’s natural and it’s healthy to accept sadness and know it won’t last forever.”

5. Don’t speak to a depressed person in a sad voice.

As Bernat humorously puts it: do you sneeze when you’re talking to somebody with a cold? It’s not rude for you to be upbeat around a depressed person.

6. Don’t feel responsible for the depressed person.

You are not responsible for their well being and you don’t need to solve their problems.

“You’re not expected to be Dr. Phil — just be friendly, more like Ellen. You may worry that you won’t know what to say, but words are not the most important thing — your presence is,” says Bernat.

7. If you plan to offer support, tell the person exactly what you plan to do and get their consent.

Bernat gives an example of a friend who reached out to him and said, “Hey, I want to check in with you. Can I call you every day? Or, maybe text you every day and call you later in the week? What works for you?” By asking for my permission, she earned my confidence and remains one of my best friends today, says Bernat.

And a quick note: If you want to make friends as an adult, check out our guide here.

8. Another great way to reach out is to involve your depressed friend or family member in normal activities like shopping or helping to clean out the garage.

In this way you are engaging with the person without calling attention to his depression. This is also a way to show that you care.

Now here’s the thing:

“All of these suggestions are grounded in one guiding principle: speaking to someone like they belong and can contribute.

“Talk to a depressed person as if their life is just as valuable, intense and beautiful as yours. If you focus on that, it might just be the most uplifting conversation of their life,” Bernat tells us.


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