helping a friend
Surround yourself with people who make you happy. People who make you laugh, who help you when you’re in need. People who genuinely care. They are the ones worth keeping in your life. Everyone else is just passing through.
— Karl Marx
I have suffered with depression on and off, for more than 20 years.
And it took 18 of those years to get any help other than medication from the NHS.
Britain's mental health services are still woefully thin on the ground and limited in what
they offer and how quickly they can offer it. Being on a waiting list for more than six
months does not address the currency of an issue, but simply exacerbates it.
Only when things hit crisis point some 18 years down the line, was I offered unhelpful
Self-help books and programmes are often derided. But given our healing has to come
from the self, we cannot dismiss them. Conventional medicine seldom can help so we
must turn to educate ourselves through whichever means that help.
I did my own recovery work – through private counselling involving different forms of counselling at different time, Emotional Freedom Techniques, Hypnotherapy, Mickel Therapy, nutrition, exercise, journaling – all contributed in some way in helping me stay alive and in some cases, take some steps forward.
Only when I truly stepped deeply into Life through facing the spiritual meaning to the depression, change became more steadfast.
Not every day was a bad day and I never let the depression prevent me from putting as much as I could into life. And depression was not just about low moods as many think; it affects so many areas of a person’s living.
Alcohol consumption or coping drug medication has increased
Appetite has changed, often ignoring good eating guidelines
Avoiding contact with friends
Change in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased
Concentration is difficult, has decreased
Continuous low mood or sadness
Difficulty in making decisions
Difficulty in being motivated
Fatigue, daytime fatigue, lack of energy
Feeling anxious and worried more than usual
Feeling hopeless and helpless
Feeling unworthy, having low self-esteem
Financial difficulties, financial neglect
Finding it difficult to make decisions
Having no motivation or interest in things
One of my sadness’s was the reaction of others: -
Friends didn’t know what to say – and I could understand that, I'd been there myself.
But most denied that I was depressed and expressed surprise that someone looking okay on the outside could actually feel or have any of the above symptoms. This is invalidating.
Some would rush to fix me.
GPs, without exploration, would put it down to life circumstances at the time – a relationship breakdown, loss of a partner or family friend, job move, house move etc.
Some said, “It’s just your personality!”
A sister said, “Oh just don’t be so sensitive and pull yourself together!”
The thing is, unless you ask the person with depression what THEIR experience is, acknowledge how that changes from day to day, find out a bit about their biography, their life history, their thoughts and feelings, how depression creates loss in their lives, you can never truly know what THEIR form of depression is like. Be SILENT and LISTEN. Same letters in both words, two very different intentions.
So what is your approach to someone with depression?
Is it to turn away as you know not what to say?
Is it to rush to fix them? (Which our NHS tries to do so often – it’s a quick-fix culture.)
Is it to shower them with well-meaning advice?
Is it simply just to stay with them, to be, to empathise, to actively listen?
Is it to play amateur therapist?
Not knowing what to do or say can be hugely challenging, especially if you haven't experienced depression yourself and witnessed first-hand the vast range of symptoms. You can feel useless, impotent even, which can in turn make you angry at or resentful of the person going through it, which isn't helpful for anyone, and later feel guilty.
Your whole way of dealing with someone may be based on your need to deal with your own discomfort around not knowing how best to help or with the fact that anything you do doesn’t seem to work and yet you expect the other to be grateful, and they’re not. So inadvertently we get into blaming them for their condition. And then feel guilty again.
Our reactions come from a fundamental misunderstanding of what depression is – after all it is just one word which covers many situations and syndromes and symptoms.
“It is a biopsychosocial condition that traps its victims in a circuitous broken-record mindset that creates vulnerable, despondent thinking patterns."
If you know someone in your life struggling with this illness, then here are some ways to adopt:-
1. Inform Educate Yourself
Take time to research, find out what depression is, how it is caused, what is happening inside the brain, how the gut is connected (for it’s not all about the brain.) what it can feel like to live with depression, how depression ranges from the less severe to the very severe, treatment approaches – and don’t go down the route of thinking that there is only medication and talking therapies. Really be open to the many other ways out there that can also help eg Emotional Freedom Techniques, Acupuncture, St John’s wort for mild depression, spiritual healing, music therapy, meditation, spirituality, etc.
Warning – avoid finding a fabulous new way and trying to convert your friend by becoming all evangelical. Introduce healing modalities sensitively.
2. Make a Point of Initiating Contact To See Each Other
When someone is depressed, everything feels like it takes more effort. And if the person is getting society messages that there is nothing really wrong with them, many conclude they can be a burden to others. So initiating and planning to meet friends can seem daunting. Picking up the phone to reach out can seem a sign of weakness. Fear of rejection can hold us back even if the friend has a genuine reason for being unable to meet. With increased negative thinking and lowered self-esteem in the depressed person, they can start ruminating and make mountains out of molehills feeling they are worthless and no one cares so why bother.
So take the initiative to contact your friend, perhaps have a regular time that works for you both. BUT, it can be good for them to break habits too. So initially have a regular meeting time, but then break the routine, aim for spontaneity, get the spark of life back for them, and as they improve, encourage them to take the initiative.
Equally, once they are used to meeting, suggest different places to meet – give them a different perspective in life.
3. Move Together
Given we know that exercise stimulates neurotransmitters in the brain that help lift depression, suggest integrating some form of exercise into your meeting – just maybe don’t call it exercises. It could be as simple as a walk through a shopping centre, or a nearby wood, swimming, dancing, zumba – anything that the other person might be interested in. It’s not just about the exercise – it’s about dealing with not walking into a place alone, about having support, someone to share the experience with, someone to converse with, and something to talk about afterwards. There were times when I told myself it would be good to go swimming; but that was just the activity. Sometimes I would get to the pool and not go in as depression would suddenly kick in big time. Yes, I’d even have changed into my swimming trunks and then a negative voice inside would convince me this was not a good idea. Had I been with a friend, the dynamic would have made things totally different.
If you are out and about and walking, with or without a dog, point out things of interest that require the person to look upwards. You’ll notice that a person with depression often walks looking at the ground. The different perspective, let alone the light, will work wonders.
4. Be Reliable and There For Them
It’s important not just to remind the person that you will be there for them but to demonstrate it in practice. Keep your commitments. Show up when you say you will. If you say, “Ring me anytime,” then be there. It may be better to say, “You can usually get me best morning, afternoons, or Friday evenings” or whenever is best for you. If you can’t be there in emergencies, then do not promise what you can’t deliver.
Remember, a person may need to pluck up loads of courage to reach out and make contact and, although it may not be your fault that you are unavailable, they can read lots into something when a person is not there.
Being reliable can also mean letting them know that whilst youo would love for their situation to be resolved, sometimes you won’t always know what to say and do. Make a joke of it sometimes saying that you may sometimes say things that seem silly or impractical but that they come with love and from the heart and you ae open to looking at alternatives with them.
Let them know too that it’s okay for them to be sad, that they don’t have to put a face on things, but gently also tell them that you may also sensitively nudge them, challenge them sometimes. I let people now that they can tell their misery story on three occasions and if it doesn’t change, then the fourth time I will challenge them by inviting them to try something different, or at least explore a different perspective, or explore how repeating the same story is benefiting them. Being a friend is one thing, colluding with their story and keeping them stuck is not helpful.
5. Validate their feelings
Too often when communicating with others we are too keen to fix them, judge them, have them change. I once had a friend who every time we met dipped into her pocket, produced a crystal, started to dowse with her crystal and then proceeded to tell me how to fix my life. That was her agenda. When I once told her I disliked the practice of being fixed, it felt like being judged and controlled, she ended the friendship as I was being ungrateful. You judge – if you must.
The thing is we need to be there as someone willing to EXPLORE their situation,
helps them UNDERSTAND it in a different way,
before they can take different ACTION.
In the exploring, it means diving in to consider their
feelings, where they originated, how much goes back
in time to childhood even, whether the feelings are
helping or hindering and so on. At this stage it is often
about encouraging them to get in touch with their feelings,
articulate them, and to have them heard and NOT judged.
To them their feelings are real. It is crucial for them, if they are to trust
you, to feel heard, understood, acknowledged, accepted as real (no matter how irrational they may sound.)
6. Validate Them - Tell Them What You Appreciate or Admire About Them
Sometimes when they are in the depths of despair, the last thing a person can recognise is their worth, their value, their strengths, what they bring to the world, what people find endearing and amusing in them, the good and the great others see in them, that they are valued just the way they are. Without bringing out a “list of strengths” but gently and appropriately dropping such aspects into the conversation, you can do much to boost a weak sense of self, of their inner spirit. It’s like watering a plant that has not been fed, allowing it to come to life. It’s not about making them laugh or seeking their thanks for your comment. Don’t make a deal of it – though it can be hugely meaningful to your friend.
7. Help them nutritionally
Here you can be on every sensitive ground. But watch out for what the person is eating and whether they are drinking alcohol, especially to excess. Now you are not here to judge them. But sometimes a gentle and wisely held conversation can help them see where their nutritional habits may not be helping, in fact may be decidedly contributing to their depression.
Some think that alcohol relieves the pain, dumbs the senses so that the world looks better. But the relief is temporary and does not deal with the issues. In fact, over time it can have a physical effect on health, it can make them ignore good eating principles, sometimes overeat, and it can affect their relationships. But eating and alcoholic drink are too very sensitive areas, in which case the conversation may be more about encourage them to seek help.
A way in can be to ask if they ever have conversations around these topics with their health practitioner. And if they say “no” it can be an opportunity to express your own concern and leave it there unless they are willing to discuss it. You may just need at this stage to plant a seed.
8. Encourage Them To Get Professional Help
If they haven't already, and some may be in denial or most resistant, encourage the friend or loved one to get professional help, either from their health practice or through voluntary agencies or private therapies. Be willing to seek out sources of help – though as far as possible empower the person to do so for themselves. Do not feed their sense of helplessness.
The person may reject your suggestion but your care again will have planted a seed if done sensitively, not if you keep banging on about it. Seeking help can feel scary for most people. It can also make them feel a failure, that they have let themselves down.
Reassure them and be prepared to go with them, if only to have a coffee and a chat afterwards.
9. Remind Yourself Why You Are Doing This and Validate Yourself
The value of your help at this time should not be overlooked but you are not doing this to be rewarded by external people and sources. However it is important to exercise self-care, and validate yourself. Giving help can be a thankless experience but we do it because Love tells us to do so, and we do it without conditions or strings attached.
Just remember, you are playing the role of an informal care and look out for when you need support and care.
Reaching out and helping is invaluable. Better still, speak out and challenge the stigma of mental health. It may just help to save the lives of men and women who suffer in agonising, lonely silence.
Thank you for being there. For being a radical healer.
Having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm
Irritability and difficulty concentrating, feeling irritable and intolerant of others
Lack of energy, no energy at all
Lacking joy in life
Menstrual cycle changes
Moving or speaking more slowly than usual
Negative map or way of seeing the world
Negative thinking that somehow can’t be stopped
Not recognising the breadth of the signs of depression
Protesting, “I am not depressed!”
Relationship difficulties, withdrawal, being moody, uninterested
Ruminating on problems and not recognising the signs of depression
Sex – lack of interest, loss of libido
Sleep – trouble falling asleep, sleep that never feels enough, waking up constantly
Spiritual void, spiritual detachment
Unexplained aches and pains
Withdrawing from social activities, hobbies and interests
Work – problems at work, not doing well at work