My friend is really depressed and I don’t know what to do

My friend is really depressed and I don’t know what to do

Teenagers are often worried about their friends being depressed, in fact in some surveys teenagers rate “teenage depression” as one of their top 3 concerns.  This doesn’t surprise me:  Teenagers quite frequently talk with me about not just about their own depression, but about the struggles of their friends.

Sarah, 16, had been working with me for a while on coping with her Mum being really sick and the stress of Year 12.  One session she wanted to talk about her friend, Eva.  She said that Eva broke up with her boyfriend a few weeks ago and since then had been acting really depressed.  Eva had told Sarah that she had been cutting herself and she didn’t want to talk to anyone at recess or lunch.  She was often crying and wrote things on Facebook like “I hate my life”.  Sarah was worried about her, and said she was thinking about her all the time.  She said that sometimes she felt frustrated with Eva, and sometimes she felt hopeless.  She really wanted to know what to do to help her. 

Depression is an experience in which someone feels really miserable and hopeless about their lives, for at least 2 weeks.  They also have a whole lot of other symptoms along with this sadness including:

  • Not enjoying anything
  • Not being able to sleep or over sleeping
  • Feeling tired all the time
  • Crying a lot
  • Not liking themselves
  • Feeling guilty a lot
  • Thinking about suicide or hurting themselves
  • Not feeling like eating or eating too much

Not everyone who gets depressed experiences all of these symptoms, but they have at least some of them. 

Many people get depressed.  Research says that about 20% of people (both teens and adults) go through a period of feeling depressed at some stage in their lives.  Think of 5 of your family and friends:  at least 1 of them will experience depression at some point.

It can be hard for friends and family to know how to cope with people who are depressed.  Friends and family often feel frustrated and helpless when they can’t seem to “fix” someone who is depressed.

Some of the feelings you might have if a friend of yours is depressed is:

  • Worried about whether they might hurt themselves
  • Worried that they will do something destructive to someone else
  • Sad that they feel so bad
  • Annoyed that they can’t get over it
  • Annoyed that they don’t appreciate the good things they have

How to Cope

Three important things to remember

If you have a depressed friend and feel worried about them or frustrated, you need to know these three things.

First, is that it’s not up to you to “fix” your friend.  You cannot make them better.  It’s not your fault they are depressed, it’s not your job to fix them and even if it was, it’s not possible for you to make this depression go away by yourself.

Second, it is very sad and hard for your friend that they are feeling so bad, but it is important for you (and them) to know that most people don’t feel depressed forever.  After a while (a few weeks sometimes, or a few months at other times) people don’t feel quite as bad as they did.  At some point, your friend will probably feel better and feel differently about things. 

Third, even though you can’t “fix them”, you can help your friend.  There are some things you can do to help them get through this time.  This is a great opportunity to be the kind of friend you would like to be, and an opportunity to be an important person in someone’s life. 

Knowing these things is important. 

Things to tell yourself

If you sometimes get overwhelmed with supporting your friend, here are some things to say to yourself:

  • Most likely, my friend will be okay. Lots of people get depressed and most people get through it. My friend probably will too.
  • I can help and support this person. This is an opportunity for me to be a good friend.  What I do does matter. 
  • It’s not up to me to fix this. I’m not their counsellor or doctor. It’s not my responsibility to make them feel better all the time.  I can take a break when I need to.

Things to Try

Show them you care about their sadness

For most of us, when we see people upset or in pain, our first instinct is to try to make people feel better.  We don’t want them to be upset and so we try to solve it and make it go away.  Often we want to say things like “cheer up” “don’t be sad”, “don’t cry” and “stop worrying”. 

Unfortunately, this is often not that helpful to say to someone who is depressed.  This is because most people who are really depressed are simply not able to “cheer up”, or “stop being sad” or “stop worrying”.   They just can’t do it.  When we tell them to do these things, it would be a bit like saying “stop your stomach processing food” or “make your heart beat slower”.  Not only does saying things like “cheer up” or “stop thinking about it” not help, it can actually make people feel worse because it often makes them feel guilty that they can’t do it.

What to say instead?  It can be more helpful to say things which show that you care that they are feeling so bad.  This is called empathy.  Empathy means showing that we care about them feeling sad and that we don’t blame them for being upset 

  • Some empathising sentences that can help are things like:
  • It really sucks that you are having such a horrible time
  • I really wish you were feeling better
  • I feel so sad for you having to go through this.
  • It must be awful to feel so yuck.
  • I’m sure I would feel the same if I was in that situation.
  • I wish I could do something to help.

Its okay to say these things quite a lot – usually people who are depressed need to hear them many times, not just once.  Saying things like this doesn’t cause the person to dwell or to remember their sadness – it just helps them feel cared about.

Sometimes, add in another perspective

Once you have said lots of empathising statements, it can sometimes be helpful for your friend to add in another perspective.  If your depressed friend is saying things which seem really unrealistic to you, then sometimes it can be helpful to add in another reassuring or more positive perspective on their situation. 

This might be reminding them of something reassuring about the situation or something that is going well, or something that isn’t quite as bad as they are saying.  For example.

  • I think you look great
  • You are good at English
  • She says that to everyone not just you
  • It’s probably him just being in a bad mood
  • You’ll get better at that.
  • I really don’t think you will fail, you never have before
  • There’ll be another girl for you I’m sure of it.
  • It looked good to me.
  • I thought you sounded cool

But keep in mind, that it is really important to empathise with the person first, before you say any of these things.  If you don’t do that, they might feel like you are just telling them they shouldn’t feel the way they do.

Try to keep them busy and talking about other things as well as their sadness

If a friend is looking sad a lot and not talking about anything much else other than their sadness, it can help to try to keep them busy and try to get them interested in and talking about other things.  You need to listen to them for a while, and empathise and say some positive things, and THEN change the topic. For example:

  • It sucks what you’re going through. Shall we try to talk about something else for a bit and see if that helps for a while? I wanted to ask what you thought about that new teacher.
  • Sorry you are feeling so sad.  Let’s talk about X factor, that might take your mind off it for a minute.
  • (At lunch/recess), come on let’s go for a walk and try and find some people to hang out with
  • Can you help me with this English homework
  • Shall we go and see a movie on the weekend?
  • Come over and we can go through those photos on my computer

Again, sometimes you have to try these things lots of times.  Don’t give up.  Even if it seems like they really don’t feel like doing anything, keep persisting.  It won’t help for them to be sitting at home or talking about the thing they are sad about for hours on end.

Try to get them to talk to an adult

As I mentioned, it’s not your job to “fix” your friend. It would be terrific if they could be talking to someone else.  Many teenagers are reluctant to do this, because they feel like perhaps no-one can help, or they are embarrassed, or they are worried things will get back to their parents.  However, often when teenagers do talk to another adult, they often feel a little better.

Here are some sentences you might like to use to try to get your friend to talk to someone:

  • I know you’ve been feeling really down.  Why don’t we go together to the counsellor at school – I can tell them a bit about what’s been happening if you want?
  • Have you ever thought of calling kids helpline/lifeline?  I’ve talked to them before/I’ve heard of other people talking to them and I think they are really nice.  I could call for you if you like and then hand the phone over? 
  • Have you talked to your mum/sister/aunt about this?  Would it help if I came with you?  Or I could talk to them first if you like.
  • I know you don’t think it will help, but in the past when I’ve been feeling down and I’ve talked to someone, it did help a bit, eventually.  I really think it would be worth a go.
  • They might say “no” the first time, but sometimes you might like to try again in a few days and ask them if they’ve thought anymore about it.

If you are worried about their safety, tell an adult

If a friend is talking about hurting themselves, or killing themselves, or if you have any suspicion that they might be thinking about this, you need to tell an adult immediately. 

Some things which should make you tell an adult are things like:

If your friend

  • is talking about giving away their things
  • has scars on their arms or legs from cutting themselves or tells you they cut themselves
  • talks about life not being worth it (either in person or online)
  • talks about wanting to die/wishing they were dead (either in person or online)
  • talks about wanting to hurt themselves (either in person or online)
  • talks about life being totally pointless/hopeless/terrible (either in person or online)
  • tells you they are deliberately hurting themselves (either in person or online)

It doesn’t matter whether you think they are really serious or not, you still need to tell someone. 

It doesn’t matter whether you think they are “just doing it for attention”, you still need to tell someone.  It doesn’t matter whether you think they will hate you for telling someone or not, you still need to tell someone.  This is very important.

If you are scared about doing this, you can start gradually, by telling an adult that you have a friend who you are worried about, without telling them their name to start with. For example, you might say this to a parent/teacher/counsellor:

  • I’m really worried about a friend of mine. I don’t want to say who it is just yet, but can I talk to you about what is happening and see what you think I should do?
  • However you do it, you must tell an adult straight away if you hear these things, you may be saving a life.

Finally, remember its okay to take a break from supporting a sad or upset friend.  It is not your job to fix them and you need to look after yourself - especially if you want to be their friend for the long term.

This is a chapter from my book:  When Life Sucks for Teens: 34 Common Tricky Scenarios Australian Teens Face (and How to Cope).  Click on this link for more info.