They say that “misery loves company” but that isn’t always the case. Years ago, I had a friend who was going through a rough patch. I wanted to respect the boundaries she was putting up so I decided to give her some space. In a few weeks when she still wasn’t returning my calls or emails, I began to get concerned.

We all suffer bad days or weeks when we just don’t feel like talking to someone and that’s okay. Taking a little time for self-care can actually be therapeutic. But when you are suffering from clinical depression, withdrawing from friends and other loved ones can actually be harmful to your health. People that are clinically depressed tend to feel hopeless, worthless and exhausted by simple day to day functions. Depression can impact many aspects of a person’s life from work to sleep to eating habits.

The depth of the pain of a person with depression pain can be frightening for their friends. This fear may result in friends pulling away. But a supportive friendship can be a huge help to people who are suffering from depression.

Why Depression Can Scare Friends Away

Although depression is not contagious, it can feel like it is. Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist, and bestselling author of Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold Us Back explains, “Identification and empathy can be great qualities in a friend but can also make dealing with someone who is depressed very difficult. Some people over-identify with a depressed friend and this can make them feel drawn into a depressive state of their own. This fear of becoming depressed makes them anxious and causes them to pull away even though they know their depressed friend needs them.”

Depression is a mental illness and like other illness, there is not a set timeline or magic formula to “cure” the patient. Friends may find it difficult to see their friend in so much pain. This uncomfortable feeling can lead to frustration and a misguided belief that the depressed person isn’t “trying” to get better.

From there, the friend may think, “If my support was helping, my friend wouldn’t still be depressed” and this leads them to give up on the friendship completely.

Depression Can Make People Withdraw

It may feel like the depressed friend is pulling away from the friendship. But this is usually a symptom of the depression itself. In his 2017 Ted Talk, comedian, and storyteller Bill Bernat spoke about his own clinical depression and said, “Depression doesn’t diminish a person’s desire to connect with other people, just their ability.”1

A person who is depressed may feel unworthy of friendship. Dr. Saltz says, “They may say, ‘no one would want to be with me’ or ‘I have no energy to engage in conversation’ but that is the chemical depression talking.”

Depression may cause a person to push away the friends that are trying to be supportive. Again, this is most likely the depression talking and not the friend’s actual feelings. Caroline Leaf, a clinical psychologist explains, “People can be difficult when they are depressed, but we should not take this personally, which often happens when one friend is depressed and tends to lash out at the other friend. This person may not be aware that what they are doing is wrong, or what is going on inside them, or they may not even care,” she says. “Or they may even be asking for help, but in a really roundabout and confusing way.”

How Friendship Can Help Depression

The benefits of friendship for people that are depressed are astounding.2 Relationships, although not a substitute for professional therapy, can help people dealing with depression with their healing. Dr. Leaf says, “A strong friendship can help heal someone’s thinking habits and improve how the brain functions, helping them gain clarity into their situation, building up mental resilience and encouraging them to face and overcome what is causing them distress.”

Friendship is all about supporting each other in good times and in bad. Although depression can challenge a strong friendship, it doesn’t make it impossible for the friendship to continue. In fact, the friendship can be beneficial to both parties. Dr. Leaf explains, “Studies show that helping others can also increase our own healing by up to 63%! This is why it is so important to try to be there for a friend who is experiencing mental distress on both the person that is ill and the supportive friend.”

And being friends with someone who is depressed isn’t always so difficult. You may still be able to enjoy good times and meaningful conversation. As Bernat explains, “Despite what you might think, talking to friends and family living with depression can be easy and maybe fun. Not like Facebook-selfie-with-Lady-Gaga-at-an-underground-party fun though. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of fun where people enjoy each other’s company effortlessly, no one feels awkward, and no one accuses the sad person of ruining the holidays.”

Taking Care of Yourself Too

One of the key parts of helping a depressed friend is to be sympathetic but not empathetic. Dr. Saltz says, “You want your friend to know that you understand that he feels bad without allowing the depression itself to pull you in.”

When supporting a friend with depression, try not to take what they say or do personally. Understand that their actions or reactions to your kindness may be influenced by the depression itself. Dr. Leaf says, “Rather than seeing the situation as ‘this person is attacking me’ and ‘how can they do this after all I have done for them!’, realize that the other person’s thoughts and actions may be distorted because of what they are going through.”

If possible, don’t go it alone. Supporting a person with depression can be very draining so it’s best not to have one sole caregiver. If you feel overwhelmed or that your friend is too reliant on you, resist the urge to abandon them. Instead, enlist the help of their friends and family to create a support system they can reach out to. Also, a don’t take it upon yourself to act as their therapist. Friendship is important but it is not a substitute for professional help.

What You Can Do

It is important to listen well and avoid defensive language. The objective is not to fix their problems or tell them what to do. Dr. Leaf explains, “You are not giving your friend a solution to all their issues (although you can have some suggestions available when the time is right and if you feel like they are appropriate); rather you are listening to help them process their pain and to not feel alone and out of control.”

Try to see things from your friend’s perspective and show true concern for their suffering. Dr. Leaf says, “This doesn’t mean that you fully comprehend what they are going through and we should never presume to; rather, it’s your compassion that validates their experiences by acknowledging that their pain is real. Doing this actually changes the resilience in the brain (through a genetic switch), which can help that person see their problems in a new light and start sorting through their issues.”

Sometimes your friend may not want to talk and that’s okay too. Dr. Saltz says, “They may just want you to be there and sit quietly with them. Or offer to help them make an appointment for therapy and/or drive them to their appointments.”

What Not To Do

A friend who is suffering from depression needs a safe space where they can vent and express their true emotions. Don’t make a friend feel that you fear their emotions or that they need to put on a brave face so you will stick around. Bernat states, “In my experience, most folks don’t want to talk to depressed people unless we pretend to be happy. So, we learn to put on a cheerful façade for casual interactions, like buying a pumpkin spice latte. The average barista doesn’t want to know that a customer is trapped in the infinite darkness of their soul.”

Avoid giving advice or saying, ‘I understand what you’re going through’ because it may sound hollow. Dr. Leaf says, “Don’t just bring up comparisons from your own life or talk about how you feel. If you do feel the need to talk, frame everything as ‘I may be wrong but’ or ‘I could be reading you wrong’ and so on. If they react negatively, remain calm and just listen.”

Always keep in mind that depression is an illness. While a supportive friend can be helpful to someone who is struggling, it cannot cure depression, so don’t get frustrated that your friend is not getting “better.” Dr.Saltz says, “It’s not helpful to tell a friend dealing with depression ‘Things aren’t that bad’ or ‘Look at all the good in your life’ because it negates their feelings. You can’t convince someone that they aren’t depressed—it doesn’t work that way.” As Bernat eloquently states, “Try not to fix us—your pressure to be ‘normal’ can make us depressed people feel like we’re disappointing you…The inability to ‘just get over it’ IS depression.”

Dr. Leaf says,” If you suspect your friend is going through something, take the time to hang out with them and just be present. Go into an interaction wanting to engage with that person on topics that interest them, which builds up trust. Doing this will actually help facilitate deep and meaningful conversations in the future, and can make the person more receptive to reaching out to you.”

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Last Updated: Nov 24, 2020