Around a year ago, my best friend texted me, “I was just diagnosed with depression.” Unfortunately, I thought she was joking and simply texted back with “lol.” This is a wonderful example of what not to do. A situation like that is nothing but shocking, and if you have no idea how to respond, it’s a little scary. This is why it is vital in healthy friendships to learn how to best support them through education, discussion and keeping your own mental health intact.
In my own experience, it was quite a surprise for me as my friend told her story of going to the doctor and how her parents were setting her up with a therapist. In all my years of knowing her, it had never once crossed my mind that she was anything but happy. I remember thinking that she must have hid it well, which was a false assumption. The truth is, I did not see the signs as clearly as I could have. Her symptoms of depression were common, and I may have been able to reach out to her and be a more supportive friend had I known these things prior.
What are the early signs of depression?
It’s important to educate yourself in preparation for this situation, depressed friend or not. But while the internet is a fairly acceptable resource, sometimes it may not be so reliable or specific. So I decided to interview Tamara Hamilton, a licensed clinical social worker, and Dr. Stephanie Pearson, child psychologist, about some of the early signs of depression. Hamilton is my school counselor, and Dr. Pearson is the clinical director at the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities.
In general, according to Pearson and Hamilton, the symptoms of mild depression in teens are pervasive irritability (being annoyed everywhere you go), an overall negative focus on things and being sensitive about simple jokes or innocent jibes. They tend to be more interested in a lot of dark, sad or scary books and movies and could be looking at dark things on the internet. This could range from a social media account that talks a lot about depression, to websites that are made specifically to help people become anorexic.
Additionally, Pearson and Hamilton agreed you may start to notice a behavioral change in your friend. This means doing things like vaping or drugs that you had never really realized they were interested in before. If you know that this isn’t like them at all, it’s possible they could be looking for ways to make themselves happier in their environment. Behavior change doesn’t always have to do with that though. If it feels like you are dragging them to activities, or forcing them to hang out with you, it’s usually a lack of motivation that they’re feeling and is fairly easy to pick up on.
You may also start to see a change in their physical appearance. Perhaps they used to care a lot about what they looked like or taking care of their personal hygiene, but you notice that effort declining. Things such as a less regular sleeping and eating schedules, failing grades and being socially distant also factor into symptoms of early depression that you can notice as a friend.
What should I do if I notice these signs?
If you notice these things before your friend is diagnosed, it’s better to first tell a parent or school counselor, Hamilton advised. “People like me call the right people to intervene and make sure kids stay safe,” she said. While it may not always seem like it, school counselors are trustworthy and will do what they can to keep students protected.
Dr. Pearson warned that your friend may not want you to tell anyone. She said that perhaps “your friend is saying ‘no nothing’s wrong’ or ‘don’t get involved.’” She acknowledged this can be difficult because “you want to respect your friend.” But, she advised, “if it really is of concern to you, it is important to tell someone that you trust.”
“You do want to share it with somebody who would be able to help your friend get the resources that he/she/they might need so that the depression doesn’t get deeper,” she said.
How am I supposed to be there for them?
In my case, my friend leaned heavily on me for support. After both of us lost a lot of friends because of COVID-19, I was really her only close confidant. I like to think that my presence was vital in her getting through that time period. And while it took some adjusting, it became pretty natural to add an extra layer of effort to the friendship. I found that simple things like calling her up at random were very helpful. Keep in mind that not every valuable conversation has to be about depression! Sometimes just being there is good enough, which sounds cheesy, but is very true. Letting them know that you are hearing them can make all the difference.
Hamilton said it’s also necessary to remind your friend how glad you are that they’re here with you. While that could involve saying how much you love and care for them, I found it more comfortable and casual to drop little hints of appreciation or compliments to my friend. Essentially, you just need to hype them up when they need it.
Hamilton said this helps because the adolescent teen brain has not fully developed. “The ability to see into the future isn’t quite there yet, so teenagers think that it’s not going to get better,” she said.
So if a friend is going through a rough patch, it’s really crucial to tell them that everything will work itself out.
How do I take care of myself in these situations?
It is true that a friend with depression may also become a burden if you let it. Hearing about someone else’s problems is hard, and you can very easily become consumed with wanting to help them. Obviously, this isn’t healthy, which is why it is so important to make sure that you are keeping your own mental health in check, Dr. Pearson suggested delving into your own interests that are nurturing for you, like reading or running or even watching a new show.
The way I took care of myself was telling someone about it. Focusing completely on something you can’t control can ultimately break you, and if you don’t hand over a little bit of the responsibility of taking care of your friend, it will only become harder. As an example, I spoke to my mom a lot about it. However, a parent is definitely not your only option. Any trusted adult could be just as helpful. But my mom really helped me by just listening, and I think the more I let it out, the more it dampened some of the stress that I had been experiencing about my friend. So even if it feels weird or awkward to talk to someone about another person’s problems, it truly helps. That way, you can remain a trustworthy pillar for your friend, and not allow yourself to go under with them.
How do I know when and where to set boundaries between myself and my friend?
There are a lot of different ways that a person can go too far when they want to help out a friend. It’s easy to blur the lines between being a supportive friend and their outright therapist.
But as Hamilton said, “All you can do for a friend is be a good listener, and express that you care, and that you love them as a friend, but you can’t take care of them.” Dr. Pearson also warned that you don’t want to be talking to them for “hours and hours a day” because “now you’re almost operating like a therapist.”
In the two months or so that my friend didn’t have a therapist, I filled in the role. It was difficult. Most of the time I could not think of what to say and I feared that what I did say was leading her down the wrong path. It was stressful and a little awkward. Fortunately, once I decided to actually do some research, I realized that you really don’t have to fill in the role of therapist. While it seems like your friend may want that from you, you are not a professional; it’s not your responsibility and you could just be making things worse for your friend.
That being said, it can be hard to clearly set boundaries with your friend. “Sometimes it builds up to a point where (your own stress) spills out,” Dr. Pearson said. “You have to be careful about not giving your friend more reason to withdraw.” So, she said, you should always preface telling a friend that you need space with your own care and concern for them.
How do you talk about their problems with them?
A valuable thing I have learned about dealing with a depressed friend is that there is no reason for your friendship to become awkward. If someone comes to you about their depression, keep in mind that in normal and healthy relationships, people talk about these things. So be comfortable and casual about it! I think that it makes this less stressful and easier on both ends of the situation. While my friend’s depression did start to get better as a result of us talking and her getting a therapist, it may not be the same way for everyone else. Depression is an illness like any other, and it takes time to treat. So if things aren’t improving right away, there is no reason to blame yourself, or think that any of your actions could have changed your friend’s illness negatively.
When it comes to listening and talking about your friend’s problems, it’s preferable to just let them vent at you and chime in with expressions of empathy. Offering advice is something that you must decide whether or not you are comfortable doing. Dr. Pearson said offering advice “becomes a task for us to understand what it is our friends can receive.” This means that knowing your friend, you have to decide how they would respond to any advice. You never want to sound like you are forcing any information onto them or telling them what to do. Pearson referred to this as “giving the power back to your friend to make the choice.” As a result, there is no pressure on your friend, and you were able to help them in the end.
While a friend’s job may not seem so important in helping someone with depression, it is arguably one of the most vital. Staying mentally healthy yourself to enable you to best support your friend, and remembering that you don’t have to be alone in that role is how we can all work to improve mental health.