How to help a friend with depression

Depression is tricky because everyone experiences it differently. When someone is living with depression, it can be hard to spot the signs, even if you’re very close to them.

If you do find out your friend is dealing with depression, it’s natural for you to want to support them. But supporting your friend might look a lot different than you expected. There are many nuances to depression you have to consider, as well as your own emotional capacity to support them.

Even though the way depression presents might be unique, there are many different ways you can support your friend. 

How can I tell if my friend is depressed?

The symptoms of depression can be hard to spot because it doesn’t look the same for everyone. Even someone who is quite cheerful with their friends and family can secretly be dealing with depression. 

If you sense that someone close to you is struggling, they might:

  • be more irritable than usual
  • seem consistently sad or tearful
  • talk about feeling worthless or like a burden to others 
  • stop spending as much time with friends and family as they used to
  • stop contacting you as much as they used to
  • stop caring about their outward appearance
  • start neglecting basic hygiene like bathing or brushing teeth
  • say they are not getting enough sleep
  • sleep for abnormally long periods of time
  • eat more or less than usual
  • seem forgetful or have trouble concentrating
  • talk about suicide and death

How do I support my friend with depression?

Supporting your friend during this difficult time in their lives could mean everything to them. Here’s a list of ways you can help:

Actively listen to your friend and assure them you’re there for them

Genuinely be there for your friend. Ask them about how they’re feeling or what’s going on in their life. They might not tell you right away whether something is going on, but if you keep checking in (without being pushy), chances are they will open up to you.

When your friend opens up to you, make sure to actively listen to them while they’re sharing how they’re feeling. Validate how they’re feeling and let them know that it’s okay not to be okay.

Avoid saying things like, “Cheer up!” or, “Things will get better soon.” These phrases are generic and tend to be unhelpful. Instead, try saying something like, “That sounds tough to deal with. I’m sorry you’re going through something so frustrating.”

Don’t attempt to solve their problems for them

If your friend is in pain, what they need is a safe space to express their emotions and feel supported. Your natural instinct might be to offer solutions or try to “fix” them. But, if your friend isn’t in a space to accept your advice, you may be setting both of you up for disappointment. 

It also might make your friend feel worse to hear advice that seems simple but feels impossible to do. You can always offer advice when you’re asked, but remember that you can never force anyone to do something they have to do themselves.

Help them research ways to get support

Starting the search for mental health treatment can be overwhelming. If your friend recognizes that they need mental health help, they might not know where to start. You can offer to help them get started by researching different depression treatment options.

Online therapy with Cerebral is a great place to start because we offer a thorough approach to mental health treatment. You can get therapy, medication management, and support all in one place. Our world-class therapists and prescribing providers are there every step of the way.

Be patient with them

Depression can improve with time and care, but it’s a slow process. Don’t get frustrated with your friend if it doesn’t seem like they’re improving quickly. Small steps add up to big results. And it’s hard to tell from the outside exactly where they are in their journey.

By being patient with them, you’re giving them space to heal. Remember that your friend is on their own journey. It will take time for them to get to a better place.

Help them with everyday things

When you’re depressed, even the simplest things can feel impossible to do. Tasks like getting mail or doing laundry feel like climbing Mount Everest. 

You can help your friend by asking them if there’s anything you can help them with. Take them with you the next time you go grocery shopping and shop together. Plan a laundry day where you both wash your clothes while spending time with each other. Help them cook lunch or dinner and then have the meal together. 

Keep inviting them to hang out

Your friend may be canceling plans more often because of depression. While you can’t force them to hang out with you, it would be very meaningful to them if you keep inviting them to your plans and events. 

Manage your expectations about their attendance, and make sure they know that they’re still important to you. You can also start inviting them to more low-key events instead of events that might make them feel exhausted. A simple dinner and Netflix on the couch is less overwhelming than a concert or a huge party.

Learn more about mental health

It can be very helpful for you to do your own research about mental health. Learning different terminology and common ways to cope with depression will give you a better understanding of what your friend is dealing with. 

Don’t let them lose contact with you

Depression can make your friend want to isolate themselves from friends and family. Checking in regularly can help them stay connected to something outside of them. It can be a phone call or plans to hang out, or as simple as a check-in text or sending a funny meme that made you think of them. 

Giving your friend even a tiny nudge to let them know you’re thinking of them will help them feel less alone. 

Remember to take care of yourself

You have to take care of yourself first before you can take care of others. Overextending yourself in an effort to help your friend will only hurt both of you.

There’s a common saying that summarizes this nicely: “Don’t light yourself on fire trying to keep someone else warm.”

It can be emotionally taxing to help a loved one who is dealing with depression. Setting boundaries around your support will help keep you afloat and protect yourself if things get too overwhelming. 

For example, if your friend wants to talk but you don’t have the emotional energy, then you can let them down kindly in order to take care of yourself. Be honest with yourself about what you can handle and let them know what your boundaries are.

Remember that you’re their friend, not their therapist. Depression is better treated by a professional. If you find yourself putting their needs above your own, it’s time to step back and reassess. 

What if they need more serious help?

There are times when you need to seek immediate help for someone with depression. If they present serious signs of being a suicide risk, you need to get a trained professional – such as their therapist – involved right away. 

If you’re in the US, you can encourage them to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK in order to reach a trained counselor. They’re available 24/7 to provide support.

In more serious cases, you may need to call 911 to get them emergency medical attention.

Someone could be at risk of suicide if they:

  • talk about suicide often or constantly
  • say they feel like they’re “being a burden” to those around them
  • bought a weapon recently without a logical reason
  • give away valuables and get their affairs in order without a logical reason
  • make unusually heartfelt goodbyes
  • talk about “wanting a way out” or feeling trapped
  • withdraw completely to be isolated and push everyone away
  • are unusually reckless or self-destructive
  • have concerning mood swings or personality changes

If you believe someone is at risk of committing suicide, get them help as soon as possible.

Supporting someone who is suffering from depression has its challenges. But you’re already being a great friend by reading this article. If you or a friend would like to seek more mental health support, take a look at our free resources, or take a free emotional assessment today!

Free resources on depression:

Clinically reviewed by Tony Reigle, Ph.D., LPC, CCTP-II, CCFP

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Expert Tips

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  • If you are in emotional distress, here are some resources for immediate help:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
    Call 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line:
    Text Home to 741-741
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