A clinical psychologist shares actionable ways to help the ones you love
words Jimmy McIntosh
Trigger Warning: This piece contains references to suicidal ideation
With an estimated 1 in 6 of us suffering from depression at some point in our lives, chances are you’ll know someone who has been affected by the mental health condition. It’s sometimes difficult to know exactly how to provide help to a friend who’s struggling, as they can often withdraw from socialising, or don’t always have the words to communicate how they are truly feeling. So we spoke to top clinical psychologist, London-based Dr. Rob O’Flaherty, about how you can provide support to a friend who you feel may be experiencing depression.
1. Reach out – in whatever way you can
“Be there for them in whichever way works; whether that is meeting up, texting, voice memos, or a call”, says Dr. O’Flaherty. It’s important to be aware that they might not want to go out, and that they may turn down your invitations. But, adds Dr. O’Flaherty, “don’t give up on them if they don’t want to speak at that particular moment. Don’t stop inviting them out or suggesting things, but be aware they might not feel up to it for a while”. Finding a safe and common ground is key, and it could be as simple as playing video games or going for a walk together –– for a depressed friend, sometimes it can be a comfort just knowing that someone is there even if you’re not talking explicitly about your feelings.
2. Take it seriously
Everyone feels sad at various points throughout their life. The loss of a loved one, the stresses of life, or the ending of a relationship can all trigger a period of apathy and low mood. But it’s crucial to understand that major depressive disorder isn’t just something you can get over at the drop of a hat, so it’s important not to be dismissive. “Don’t invalidate their feelings by using phrases such as ‘it’s not that bad’ or ‘it could be worse’, as this minimises the distress they are experiencing and may make them want to close down further”, Dr. O’Flaherty adds. There are some great resources online to help understand depression better, such as Rethink or Mind, both of which offer more information about the ins and outs of clinical depression.
3. Listen up
If your friend is up for talking things through, make sure to be a good listener. It can be difficult to open up about depression, and hard to find the right words to express how you’re feeling. However your friend broaches the subject, “try to respond with empathy and understanding. Ask open questions, rather than suggesting what they should do”, says Dr. O’Flaherty. But try not act as their psychologist, or offer medical advice –– that’s best left to a professional. So…
4. Encourage therapy
Depression can range from a constant low-level apathy, all the way through to distressing suicidal ideations. “No matter the severity you should encourage your friend to seek help if you’re concerned. They can contact their GP; any local Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) service, or contact a private psychologist or therapist”, suggests Dr. O’Flaherty. But whilst you can assist in researching the right help for someone, it’s best to leave them to contact a professional, as your friend will be able to accurately describe their own situation.
5. Be aware of your own mental health
Being a constant –– or sole –– source of counsel to a depressed friend can often feel hugely overwhelming, and you can find your own wellbeing suffering as a result. But there are lots of ways to offer help without sacrificing your own mental health. “Encourage your friend’s other friends and family members to support you in supporting them”, Dr. O’Flaherty says. The greater the support network, the greater the care available. Having someone else who can checkin once in a while allows you to recharge, and ultimately provide better assistance for your friend: “You cannot pour from an empty jug, so make sure you look after yourself first and foremost”.
6. If you’re worried about their safety, call 999
Although it can be very distressing, if a friend has expressed a desire to self-harm or you’re seriously worried about their immediate safety, it’s crucial to get emergency help. “You should call 999, or take them to the nearest Accident & Emergency department, if possible”, urges Dr. O’Flaherty. If you’re unable to check on them for whatever reason, contact someone who is able to do so. And remember, you can also always call NHS 111 for any advice if you think a friend might be in danger in the future.