How do I be there for someone in the depths of depression?


Hi Hannah,

I have a best friend who is in deep, deep depression right now. She doesn’t open up to many people about it, but she’s entrusted me with the truth about what’s happening behind her Instagram life. I love that she has entrusted me with that truth, but I want to be honest with you and say sometimes it’s really hard.
 
When she’s depressed, she turns inward. Her life can only revolve around her darkness, and I can’t blame her for it. I try to help her see anything else, but she gets mad at me for not understanding her situation. She’s treating people around her like they don’t matter, and since I’m the only one who knows what’s going on, they are leaving her because they’re being hurt by her. This makes her spiral down further.
 
I don’t know how to be her therapist, which she says she can’t see because she can’t get out of bed. I can only be her friend, believing in her to fight for her life, but she’s done fighting. She’s decided that she’s depressed, and negative, and unworthy. She’s decided the world is against her, even when I’m standing there trying to fight for her.
 
My question to you is, how do I be there for someone in the depths of depression? How do I give hope to someone who feels hopeless? How do I point her to baby steps, when she’s already decided they won’t lead her anywhere good?
 
Sincerely, 
 
W-


Sweet W-

The thing I want to speak over your life before writing anything else: you are a good friend. A dang good friend. On the days where darkness tries to tell you any differently, you are a good friend. You are compassionate. You are brave. You are doing the best you can.

You’re not a lifeboat. This isn’t “all on you.” 

I know I don’t need to sugarcoat what it can be like to walk with someone through depression. You’ve already seen it. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like walking. It feels like standing still while the person you love pitches a tent in the darkness and cannot seem to pack up the camping gear and keep moving forward. This is the hardest. As people, we want to do everything we can to take the pain away. We want to heal the wounds. We want to be like God but we are stuck with the reality that our hands are small and our need is too big.

Be okay with not understanding all of it.

Your friend might say some negative and hopeless things during this time. It can be frustrating. The best thing I can tell you is to become okay with not understanding the view from where’s she standing.

To her, things feel darker. Things feel hopeless. To people who have depression, it often feels like your mind is a small prison with no windows, doors, or natural light. It is much harder to muster up the energy to just be grateful or just praise God. Words don’t act like balm for very long. Our thoughts take us down and they take us to a depth inside of us that we hoped was not possible.

You don’t have to experience this (and I hope you never do). You don’t even have to fully understand it. You just tell yourself, “this is very real to my friend. I don’t see it but I acknowledge all the things she’s telling me.” Listen. Nod your head. Validate and encourage. Speak light and love over her and remind her that the darkness doesn’t get to win her.

Remind her, through action, that she’s necessary.

That’s one of the biggest fears of a depressed person: I’m not necessary. It doesn’t matter that I’m here. People don’t need me.

And sadly, we often treat depressed people as if they are sick, incapable and unreliable. One of the best things my friends ever did for me during my time of depression gave me reasons to be accountable. They asked me to join them for grocery shopping. They asked for help with tasks. One friend was returning to school after years of being a stay-at-home mom and she asked me to help her shop for school supplies. These small things might seem trivial but it was better than being treated as if I could not get out of bed and help someone else.

Depression is a self-obsessing illness and so any invitation you extend for someone to exit their own head is a good one. There might be resistance at first but asking someone to be accountable for small tasks is incredibly uplifting for someone who feels they don’t serve a purpose.

Remind her, through words, of the truth.

She might not believe you. The words might not soak in. But you can combat her negative talk with the truth. When she texts to say she is unworthy or not good enough, you can come back and say, “I know you think that is a reality right now. I know it feels so real but you are _____________. You have always been ____________________.”

Remind her of who she was (and is) when she is doing her best. Remind her she’s a great cook. That she’s fantastic at seeing at others. That she is hilarious. Whatever the best attributes are, the things that made you want to be her friend in the first place, call them out. Call your friend up to better views of herself.
Again, she might not always receive those words but you can still say them.

Depression tries, with all its strength, to give a person a new name. Unworthy. Unnecessary. Pointless. The most valuable gift you can give a depressed person is a reminder of who they really are, who they were so proud to be before the darkness entered in.

But don’t be a doormat.

This is important and I don’t say it lightly: Depression is not an excuse to treat another human poorly. No person is perfect and so there may be moments of failure and forgiveness but if you consistently treat people poorly and blame it on depression, that’s not the true culprit.

If I was mean or unkind during my times of depression, I would expect my friends to call me out and call me up to a level of respect. Depression is not a “get out of jail free” card and you should be hyper-sensitive to those who treat it as such. People are still expected to say sorry when they are depressed– even it takes some time and perspective.

Even with depression, a person still has to do the work of stepping outside themselves to see other people and be kind. Depression isn’t an excuse to be a mean person.

You cannot play the role of therapist to your friend. You can absolutely say, “I know you’re tired and defeated and I am ready to drive you to therapy.” You can serve someone but you cannot take the steps for them.

Your friend may lose friends. That’s a harsh reality. Your friend might spiral as a result. This is not your cross to bear and it’s also not a reason why you should accept being the doormat. You have feelings, too. You have value, too. You deserve respect, too.

Take care of yourself. Place up boundaries and maybe even tell your friend you’re placing up boundaries. It’s important and the response might not be favorable but boundaries exist out of love and the preservation of people.

Fill yourself up.

On that note, be good to yourself. You can’t love and serve others if you’re exhausted, depleted or self-sacrificing to a fault. Your health matters.

It’s okay if you need to step away. It’s okay if you need a night off. It’s okay if you need more boundaries. Don’t get swallowed up by the belief that you can save everyone– it won’t work.

How do you give hope to someone who feels hopeless? You keep putting hope on for yourself. Every single day. You strengthen your own heart and your own soul with hope so that you don’t become depleted. You extend hope to others in your life as well. You make hope your anthem rather than mustering up hope for someone who has an empty tank. There is nothing wrong with wanting to extend hope to someone who is missing it but you must cultivate hope for your own soul and wellbeing, first. Only when we take care of ourselves can we healthily care for the others.

Like many of the things I write about in this space, this conversation takes a village. I am just one voice. If you could please, take the time to write W a message of your own. I know she will be reading. Thank you in advance.

11 thoughts on “How do I be there for someone in the depths of depression?

  1. This post spoke so deeply to me because I have grappled with how to help very close friends of mine who deal with depression, and at times I have done it very ungracefully. Oftentimes I have tried to be my friend’s hero and rock- I have stepped in and tried to be the savior. One of the best things for me and for my friends has been recognizing and communicating to my friends that I myself cannot fix things. Entrusting them to the Lord through prayer has been so powerful, and has allowed me to stay healthy and maintain boundaries even while I walk with my friends through the valleys. I am honest with my friends about where I am, and I am truthful if I feel like I am not in a good place to listen or bear the burden at the moment. This is a hard battle to fight, but having a trustworthy, resilient, and honest community is so necessary.

  2. “Depression is not a “get out of jail free” card” – Awesome point. It’s weird how we treat depressed people like they are made out of glass can can’t help or contribute. Tons of great advice here. Thank you!

  3. Encourage your friend to tell someone else what is going on. I had a very similar experience with my best friend and she wanted to close out her family completely. I’ve also experienced depression myself and felt the same desire to isolate. But I can tell you from both of those experiences that it is so much better to tell other people who can help you. Your friend trusts you because you’re a great friend! That being said, there are other people in her life and perfessionals as well who could offer her more help. For me, it was like a physical weight lifted off my shoulders when I told my parents and I went to see the doctor. Things were not all better right away, but the hope of being helped brought more light into my struggle.
    You can also pray for your friend, ask God to help her see the light and want to live again, and to help you see how to help her and how to set healthy boundaries. Never feel guilty for setting boundaries, its a hard thing to do. I read a lot about setting healthy boundaries before I had a good understanding of that.
    Lastly, don’t be afraid to seek counselling yourself if its available to you. A counsellor will understand what your friend is going through and help you learn to set healthy boundaries for yourself.
    All the best to you ❤

  4. Dear W,
    You are an amazing friend, to be the only one entrusted with your friend’s secret, so I am guessing that, in some way, you are a lifeline. I also am dealing with depression right now (though not as dark as your friend’s) and my first two thoughts are:
    1) make her PROMISE not to do anything to harm herself without calling you first. I say this because, the last time I was in that place, I had made a promise to someone, and I called. She called the police, and they got me to the hospital in time.
    2) Pray for her. And tell her you are doing so. Let her know she can count on this fact (of course, if she’s not a believer, she may not want to hear so, maybe not a good idea).
    I know that I feel dreadfully unworthy when I have the dark and twisties, so when being asked to do something, I would offer up reason after reason why I couldn’t do it. But really, I would really be looking for someone to keep after me, to prove that I matter to them.
    Sometimes it would be nice just to have someone here, reading a book, knitting, writing, whatever, just so I am not alone.
    Again, you are an amazing friend, to hold space for someone in the dark. God will bless this, I am sure.

  5. So much of depression stems from the degradation or lack of one’s social circles. As stated above depressed people often drive people away which in turn only deepens their depression. Antidepressants only truly work for a select few yet are the staple “go-to” treatment, yet they really don’t help at all.

    What I’ve found helps me is simply having someone who’ll listen, and not try to solve my problems. Call it validation, I guess that about as accurate a way to describe it as I can think of. Just listen, and acknowledge that the way the depressed person seees things is true for them. You don’t have to agree, just acknowledge it as their perspective, and don’t try to change their point of view or argue your point against theirs.

    True, honest, open and vulnerable communications is the solution for so much of what troubles us these days, and it’s definitely necessary when communicating with a depressed person.

  6. W,
    I hope you know that you are not alone in this battle either. I’m sure that because you are the only one she has entrusted with this information, it can feel like you are the only lifeline she has. Many people have been in the exact same position.
    Encourage your friend to let others in. Gently let her know that you cannot be responsible for yourself and her, and you can only be her friend and not her therapist. My best friend also struggles with depression, and our other friends see it, but she won’t let them in because she has had several people walk out on her because they “can’t handle her anxiety.” Her biggest fear is repeating that. At this point she has known our other friends for years, and she is still at a surface level with them because she thinks she is keeping up the mask that she is okay and she’s got this.

    This is certainly true for my friend, and I suspect may be true for yours as well–they see something is going on, but because they don’t know what it is and haven’t been given permission to help, they’re response is to get frustrated and stop trying to be friends with her.
    Forgive me if this is wrong, but I do acknowledge to my other friends what is going on when they ask me about her and/or speak up about their frustration with her. Because they see it, they already know the anxiety is there and the mask that she has it all together is not real. So far, it is helping hold things together, by a thread, but still together. I do not know if this is right and I think this must be done with great discretion. However, it helps my health so that I can help my friend.

    All that being said, encourage your friend to open up to others. It’s the only way to let light in. But if she won’t, consider telling other friends, or going to a counselor yourself so that you are not standing alone in the dark. As much as you want to help your friend, all you can do is stand by her. This is a battle she has to decide to fight for herself.

  7. Loving well is what I got out of your write! That was also given to the friend and that’s important.
    She isn’t responsible for the outcome, no matter what, but to love one with respect is the gift! This friend is a rare ruby!

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