First Steps in Helping a Depressed Friend to Open Up
Depression is inwardly focused and as a result it can be hard for someone with depression to explain how they feel. For one thing the sheer effort of assembling thoughts and speaking can feel overwhelming. It isn’t helped by the belief that no matter what they say the person who is listening can never really understand or appreciate what they feel. As a close friend you want to help and there are some things you can do.
It can be helpful to know that when emotions are bottled up they create more tension than if they are released. So while you might be willing and prepared to listen to the story of how your friend feels they’ve got to their situation, they may not be ready to disclose. Small disclosures are however a start and they show some willingness on the part of your depressed friend to share. Now it has to be said this is just one side of the equation. Another side is the friend who talks and talks and repeats their worries endlessly. Both situations reveal a sense of anxiety, which is very common with depression.
As a friend your job is remarkably simple but so important to get right. You mustn’t use their depression as a vehicle for your own concerns. This is incredibly common and very misunderstood. When my sister’s husband died she accepted the support of bereavement counseling. This was an informal and voluntary form hosted by people who had lost their own partner. A shared experience can be a powerful tool if it is managed correctly but all too often it wasn’t. In the end my sister had to put a stop to it because she was simply being regaled with people too eager to share their own stories.
As a friend you need to be yourself rather than try to be someone you aren’t. After all, these are the qualities that made you friends. Clearly, you’ll have to modify your actions to the situation. It isn’t helpful to encourage alcohol consumption, or expecting you can do the same things. You can however encourage your friend by acknowledging they are neither mad nor bad for experiencing depression. You can reassure them there is nothing to feeling guilty about and that nobody is being let down.
Acceptance of the situation is the first step in helping your friend. If they sense they can trust you the time will come when they start to open up. Meanwhile just being around when you can and leaving a number when you can’t is a great first step. Then, when your friend does start to talk there are some simple skills you can employ and I’ll be looking at these in my next post.
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Dr. Jerry Kennard is a Chartered Psychologist and Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society. Jerry's clinical background is in mental health and, most recently, higher education. He is the author of various self-help books and is co-founder of positivityguides.net.