This is not the usual subject matter of this blog, please excuse me whilst I hijack it for a mental health article.
Being a friend to someone with depression.
So, there’s been a lot of talk in the media about depression since the great Robin Williams finally succoumbed to his, and believe me those of us with depression are grateful that people are starting to talk about it as though it’s not a ‘thing’. Most of us are also fighting the urge to post on social media ‘will you please shut up, it’s bad enough having the depression without you discussing it’. We’re fighting the urge because we know people need to understand, but it’s important that those who are not depressed understand fully. Reading about a guy you really like who has just lost his fight against himself is, for a depressive, a whole world of bad beyond the fact that he won’t be making any more films. Most of us are thinking, well fuck if he’s done it – why not me?
It’s the self-absorption of depression that is probably the most repellent thing about it. I’ve read a lot of articles recently (which I really shouldn’t have because they don’t half trigger* me) about what it’s like to have depression. I thought it was time that someone gave a few pointers to people who are trying to help. Well from me at any rate – it’s worth remembering that depression has common traits but is a unique illness in every case. In other words, some or all of this may not apply to your depressed friends.
What people with depression don’t need: Your sympathy
They know how crap it is to have depression, believe me their head is telling them enough. They don’t need you to add to it. Empathy is fine, but gushing sympathy will – in most cases- just make things worse. I actively avoid talking to people who I think will be sympathetic rather than understanding, luckily I have a choice of other people to talk to.
What people with depression do need: Your patience
We know we are being irrational, or maybe we don’t. Our heads are lying to us. Be patient, and I mean really patient. We all fear that our friends will get bored and leave, make sure you’re the one whose still there after all the shit, after months or years maybe. Some times there’s a reason we’re crying, sometimes there’s not – we know it’s infuriating, it’s infuriating for us too. We wouldn’t do it if we could help it, believe me. You also need to be patient with the things that we do – like cancelling social visits, not cleaning the house, not washing, reading when there are people around and all the other things we just can’t manage right now because we’re too busy fighting a war in our head and that’s exhausting.
What people with depression don’t need: You talking
Believe it or not, we are not depressed because we can’t handle life. We do not need your advice – unless we ask for it. We don’t need to hear about this one time when your granny died and you didn’t want to leave the house. We don’t need your theories about exercise, healthy eating, getting more sunlight, wearing bright colours or listening to less depressing music. We may well need counselling, that’s our decision. We certainly don’t need you gossiping about us. And we don’t need ‘cheering up’ any more than somebody with a migraine needs ‘cheering up’.
What people with depression do need: You listening
Listen to the outpouring – and don’t contradict it, there’s very little point. Wait for the end of the outburst. Offer simple affection and affirmation if appropriate. Listen to the unspoken – we are trying to communicate that something is wrong, without impacting negatively on your life. For example, my girlfriend and I communicate a lot on instant messengers, and she noticed that whenever I was depressed and in need of her attention and affection I started saying ‘please’ and ‘sorry’ more. Listen to tone, read body language. Listen to what they think might help. They know how they feel – you don’t.
And if you ever tell someone they can call at any time, you’d better mean it. A lot of depressed people suffer worse at night, and you may be the only person who they trust at 3am. If you get cross or even sound slightly put out, that might be enough to trigger them into crisis.
What people with depression don’t need: A Label
None of us want to be your ‘depressed’ friend, any more than you’d want to be someone’s ‘fat’ friend, ‘ginger’ friend or ‘unemployed’ friend or ‘gay’ friend – but that’s a whole other article. We want to be your friend. The depression can do one.
What people with depression do need: Support
It’s like any medical condition in this respect. Allow for things that your friend might need – if you have the sort of relationship where you feel comfortable asking them if something will set them off then do and don’t be prissy about it. I like to be warned about crowds, and having visitors in the house. My house mate knows I need notice about company and that sudden changes are not good. My girlfriend feeds me when she knows I’m depressed to make sure I have sensible food, and she also takes me for walks to get me out of the house. The important thing is, that if I really put my foot down, she’d listen and help. If you live with them, check they’ve taken their meds, and if you think they need it make them go to the doctor. Go with them if you have to.
What people with depression don’t need: You to bring it up
Don’t bring up someone’s depression in conversation, even to ask them if they’re feeling better. In that sense it’s NOT like asking after a physical health problem. They may be having a good patch and don’t want to think about it. If they are having an episode, then it might be necessary to point it out but otherwise give them that control. Don’t joke about it unless they do, and don’t start the joke on any given day – you may well think you’re funny but what can be amusing for them one day can translate as ‘I’m a totally useless waste of space, and all my friends are going to leave’ the next.
What people with depression need: To be able to mention it.
Being able to talk about it in passing or frivolously is a massive relief. It makes it a whole lot easier to ask for help when I need it. It’s in my nature to joke about things, so being able to joke about my depression really helps. Being able to say ‘I’m having a sad’ and it being no more serious than ‘I’ve got a headache’ means the world, because it means that you can talk about what is effectively a big part of your life without worrying that people are looking at you funny.
Perhaps the most important thing that we want from you it so realise that we are people who have this illness. We are not mutants, aliens or contagious. We’re your friends, we put up with your weird sense of humour, your boring girlfriend, your cat allergies and your constant complaining about your computer – you can put up with this, and maybe even help us through some stuff. Or at least we hope you can. Well, maybe you can’t… in which case I was right all along and I don’t deserve any friends…. bugger.