Depression? Here’s how to help.
We’ve probably all seen someone struggling with anxiety or depression. College, especially can be a brutal and lonely place for some. We try to help for a while and then give up. Frustrated, that they aren’t getting over it.
How do you know someone is depressed? Maybe you aren’t sure whether the person is just sad for a while, that it’s just a phase or that someone really needs to intervene.
In either case, they probably do need a friend.
As you stick along, you’ll eventually be able to make the call whether they need outside medical intervention too.
My mom has dealt with depression for a long time. About a decade or so. I didn’t really understand it at first. I was in the 5th grade. Wondering why my mom was super quiet on most days. Or why she’d go back to live with her parents every so often.
What followed was a decade of experimenting. Different treatments, different doctors, different advice. It’s overwhelming. My dad spent a lot of time reading and discussing depression. Over time, he developed a strong opinion on what works. Getting the right medical treatment is absolutely essential. But he believes that along with it — not without antidepressants — rebuilding a sense of community and self-esteem is the path to a more permanent solution.
I’ll be writing mostly about my experiences with my mom. But I think they’d apply reasonably well to others as well. There are hereditary factors to mental health but the sociological factors do play their part.
Not keeping it a secret
Most people’s natural reaction is to hide that they are depressed. It grows to become a form of shame. It’s bad enough to be depressed without worrying about hiding it from others. Gradually, tease the topic of depression out from your friend. It’s something they should be able to discuss at least with a few people.
Most of our friends know that my mom is taking medication for depression. And it’s something we freely talk about in the group. Dosage changes, forgetting to take meds, mood swings are all things that can be discussed instead of stigmatizing it and keeping it a secret.
Don’t help too forcefully
Here’s what not to do. Say cheer up and then look expectantly at them. As if well, that was the magic word and they are all better now. It takes time. And if you are constantly badgering and visibly helping them out, they’re just going to get pressurized and frustrated that they aren’t getting better. They will find your company exhausting and stressful.
Be quietly supportive. Call them out and go for a walk, or a cup of coffee or a movie. Don’t directly engage in a conversation on what their root cause for depression is and what they should do. Talk about anything else! Ask them to join you in the gym because it’s fun, not because of it’s great benefits to their mental health.
Sure, sometimes we go out for a movie and ice-cream with the express purpose of cheering up my mom. But we don’t declare that this is an activity to cheer her up and then stare at her every 5 minutes to see if she’s having a good time. We just go there, enjoy the movie and come back.
Building a community of friends
Loneliness seems to go hand-in-hand with depression. A steady group of friends who meet up regularly helps. It doesn’t have to be a big group. Just 3–4 people is good enough. But you do have to be very selective. These are people who should be aware that their friend is going through a rough patch and sensitive enough not to trigger him.
Back home, we have this group of close family friends. We catch up at least once every week. Have a potluck. Dinner maybe. Play some cards. Meet for each others birthdays.
I think this group has been the single biggest factor in my mom getting better.
Groups can help
One-on-ones can be brutal. There’s this expectation that you have to respond to and pay attention to what the other person is saying. Not good if you just feel like curling up in a ball and staying in your room. But long periods of isolation don’t help much either. Just listening in while other people go on with their banter can be better.
Here’s where you can form a group of 3–4 people and work on an assignment in college. Well, start an assignment, and devolve into LAN gaming and music. We’ve done this with a friend in college, who was too nervous to talk one-on-one with someone, but with all us screaming and swearing while LAN gaming, he was comfortable joining in on the fun.
Self-esteem and being occupied.
Maybe your friend is brilliant at music or art. Ask him for help in that area. Don’t treat him as someone who needs help, go ahead and actively look for help from him too. If nothing else, ask them for company while you go about with whatever activity you are doing.
We could order out whenever we have a get-together with family and friends. But we usually all cook together or at least cook something in our own homes and then meet up at one house. My mom’s a good cook. Whenever we’re cooking together, she guides us through the whole thing. It just ends up becoming a great bonding activity for everyone.
Medication helps. Don’t necessarily have to completely quit.
“So when can I stop with the medicine?”
There’s this huge stigma around taking medication. That it somehow makes it “official”. But along with other meaningful activities to keep one engaged, it is really effective. Think of it as an aid to get-by while one rebuilds other healthy habits into their routine.
It’s natural to think of an end-date. Of when it’s over. But the thing with depression is that you may end up taking a low-dose over several years. Instead of thinking of targeting a date by when you are done with the medicine, try to reinforce healthy fun habits over time.
My mom started off with a strong dose. She made more friends and started taking part in potlucks, get-together and trips. With time, the doctor kept reducing the dose. She took that as progress and worked harder at her hobbies. She’s been on a minimal dosage for years now.
Exercise in any form does wonders for your mood. There’s plenty of research to show that it’s effective in combating depression and anxiety. Basketball, Zumba, running, gyming, hiking, all of it works. Especially if done regularly enough. So do whatever it takes to drag your friend along.
Diagnosed depression is much like diabetes or heart disease from the perspective that it is a chronic illness that requires special attention and considerable patience.
There will definitely be days where it’ll seem hopeless. That nothing you or they do seems to work. I’ve seen it work in my mom’s case. It took several years though. If you’ve never gone through depression yourself, you won’t get why someone can be ‘sad’ for so long for no good reason. But you can still help out by being around.