This is part two of a previous blog post which I wrote on depression and relationships. There I shared my story with the hope of articulating what life has been like for me the last few years, with particularly attention paid to depression and anxiety (and a shout out to being a TCK). Check it out here if you haven’t yet https://noggybloggy.wordpress.com/2017/01/06/lonely-ft-depression-and-relationships/. The purpose of this post is to provide some helpful tips for people who have depression and those who have friends with it and are keen to help. I wrote another one of these earlier too (https://noggybloggy.wordpress.com/2016/09/16/a-devastating-team-sport-2/).
The first section will be tips for people with depression and the second will be a section for people who want to help. Bear in mind these tips will be loosely correlating with the previous post on relationships, and is not exhaustive by any means. A lot of them will be very tough, so apologies, but I really do believe that they are worthwhile. Finally, depression looks different for everyone. Although these ideas are from a variety of people and in my experience tend to be great, they are not an easy solution. They are part of a pretty tough and miserable solution, but they are worth it none the less. Think of them as guidlines than a particular code.
What to do if you have depression
Accept the change – The first thing to do, in terms of relationships, is to accept that they will be different. With depression it is forced changed usually in a direction that you wouldn’t want to go in, which is awful. There aren’t many redeeming characteristics when it comes to this, it is a terrible and challenging change. However, it is a change, and denying it won’t help. It is pivotal to remember that it is a mood disorder and this will change the way that you relate to people.
Last semester I found that I learned to manage a lot of the aspects of depression much better because of this. I learned that depression does take its toll on relationships, and if I want those relationships to develop as best as they can it is crucial that I accept that relationships are different than they were before. I am no longer energetic, and pretending that I am won’t help. I am often in a terrible mood, but putting on a mask to hide emotions will never help anyone.
Personally this often took the form of just being weak around my friends. I would go to a friend’s house and lie on the couch, not being able to do much more (shout out to 106a). Part of me wanted to hide what I was going through, to be tough. That was my modus operandi for the previous years, and so was natural to me. However, it is important that I could be myself around my friends, or they aren’t really friendships which are honest and open. This means that sometimes I am not fun to hang out with because I just want to lie down and do nothing, but it is an honest approach to relationships.
Accepting the change that depression brings about helped me have more integrity in my relationships. By accepting that I had changed and that depression effects my relationships I had given myself permission to take off my mask that I used so often to pretend that I was ok.
Just a quick disclaimer. I am not saying that people with depression need to tell everyone how they are doing and be totally vulnerable with them. This could be very hurtful for you so please don’t. Judiciously realize that you have changed, and that it will change all of your relationships.
Be wise about who you invest in and spend time with – Everyone has a limited amount of energy and so needs to choose where to invest that. It is impossible to be friends with everyone. Usually this looks like a heavy investment in family and a few close friends. Then this would spread out in diminishing returns. It is very important that when you are struggling with something, such as depression, which can dramatically limit the amount of energy that you have, that you are wise about how you spend that energy.
If you just got depression, you may find yourself unable to invest in all the relationships that you were before. This sucks, but is now a reality for you. If you try to keep up all the relationships with the same intensity you will destroy yourself and make the depression far worse. You need to respect yourself as a human being made in the image of God, and sometimes this means investing less in certain relationships.
I never wanted to accept this. I wrote in the previous blog about why I loved relationships so much, and struggled to apply this to my life. (Mum don’t read this next sentence) I was very good at cutting back my energy that I had previously put into reading and my studies, but really struggled in the relationships area. Ideally I should have kept the few close friends I had and invested in those. I ran myself into the ground investing in relationships which I found tough.
The second part of this point is that some people are great with dealing with depression as a topic, but most are not. There are a lot of people in my life who I never like to talk to about depression. They tend to be people who are bad listeners and know all the answers to life’s tough questions. Some of these people I like to be around when I am feeling better, but they are toxic to me when I am feeling miserable. This is because they tend to say things or act in certain ways which make me feel worse. Avoid these people when you are feeling ill.
The flip side of this is that when you are feeling ill try to find time to be around people who you don’t mind hating life with. People who you can say “I hate life right now” and not have to feel bad about it. They can be angels in your life and can make a massive difference. In a better world this would be most people. However, my experience tends to disagree with that. There are very few people who are good to be around. There are very few people who know how to deal with someone who is depressed, so treasure them when you find them.
Another disclaimer. I am not advocating isolating yourself socially or avoiding making new friends. Please just be aware that you have limits, and that depression changes the limits.
Do not let yourself be isolated – Unfortunately this one is very easy, yet can be catastrophic. It is of the utmost importance that depression is fought off by a team. You cannot do this alone, but you don’t need to. If you are reading this presumably you know me or it has been passed on by someone you know. If you think that you have virtually no human contact please get in touch! Let other people know.
This one sucks because it is so easy to be isolated. Many times I have gone to bed hoping that I will die in the night so that I don’t have to face the next day, and when I wake up I am often not much better. This doesn’t exactly inspire me to surround myself with people. It would be so easy just to stay at home all day and leave it at that. I want to cancel things because I am ill and to hide under the covers. However, this will only make things worse. It is crucial to push past the lack of motivation and anxiety to seek out others.
The way that this one plays out practically will be different from person to person. Extroverts will probably (although certainly not all the time) want to have more people around them anyway. Introverts less so. Isolation will look different from person to person. For some people it might be locking yourself in your room, for others it happens in the midst of a crowd. However, what is crucial is that there are people in your life who you trust (even if you hate them/are angry with them/don’t care about them). It is necessary that we are always trying to build and deepen meaningful relationships.
Let people help you – For a lot of people this may be the most difficult one. British people to be terrible at this anyway, as am I. This is tragic. Vulnerability and dependency and vital elements of all relationships, and denying help prevents these aspects of the relationship from developing. If you want to have good relationships with people, worthwhile relationships, you need to be willing to let them help you.
This flies in the face of a lot of what culture tells us. It tells us that strong people do not need help. It tells us that if you toughen up you won’t need help. It tells us to reject help and ‘Keep calm and carry on.’ But what we need to do is show weakness and embrace help. We need to stop, admit how weak we are, then accept that we need others. This will make our lives so much easier and will strengthen all of the relationships that we have.
All of this section so far doesn’t actually have anything to do with depression, it is for everyone, but people struggling with depression have a unique challenge. The symptoms of it often make it very difficult to ask for help or to accept it.
Feelings of guilt or shame will prevent one from accepting help because they often unrealistically believe that they are being an unfair burden to others.
Feelings of anger will make one reluctant to accept help from people who they are angry with.
Anxiety will prevent someone reaching out for help.
Low self-esteem may make one think that they are not worth being helped.
Having low motivation or energy reduces the chance of asking for anything.
Indecisiveness may result in an unwillingness to accept help.
Feeling hopeless will prevent you from seeing the benefits of the help.
These are just some of the many things that have gone through my head (with the exception of the low self-esteem, for some reason I seem to have avoided that). Accepting help is tough anyway in this culture, but depression makes it seem impossible.
One of the interesting things about depression is that it can warp what you know is true. This is no different for relationships. It makes it tough to trust people. You are constantly unsure about whether they hate you or love you. You are constantly second guessing yourself about how interactions went or how others perceive you.
With that in mind, practice accepting help. Just say yes. If someone offers something say thanks and get on with life. It is something that will get better with practice. Don’t worry about what others think, it doesn’t matter. Ask for help and accept it. It is their fault for being friends with you and part of the deal of friendship is helping each other. I know that this isn’t great, but just bite the bullet. I would love to go through each symptom and discuss how to get round each one, or at least try to, but don’t really have the space. So, just do it. Please trust me that the benefits are worth it, even though it sucks.
Depression is an explanation for the way you relate to people, but it does not justify bad actions – I am very sympathetic to those of us with depression. I think it is crucial to be as gracious as possible with us. However, I can never use my depression as a justification for treating others wrongly. Even though I am angry I should not act out in my anger. There isn’t anything wrong with being angry, but if that leads me to punch my brother or be sarcastically hurtful to a friend I bear the responsibility of that.
The reality is that despite the great challenge that it poses you can still be a lovely person if you constantly prioritize the value that we all have as human beings. It is tough, and sucks, but is possible. Being a good person doesn’t mean not feeling terrible or angry, but it means being able to ‘love your neighbor as yourself,’ often when feeling awful. We share the same moral obligations and are not excused from pursuing high standards.
Having said all that, when you do mess up, and you will, don’t be too hard on yourself or it will just make things worse. Acknowledge the mistake, apologize, learn from it, and then move on. Dwelling on it after that will only make things worse.
Get professional help – I cannot recommend seeing a counselor highly enough. I saw three over the past few years who I didn’t find helpful, and sometimes the opposite. Yet I have just started seeing one in Dundee who has been remarkably helpful (who knew good things happened in Dundee?). Although I was reluctant to go I found someone who helps a lot. Keep trying to get help from professionals. Although it can be tough to find the right person, it is worth it.
This may include going to the GP and doing CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy). CBT has helped me manage the negative thought patterns which has made relationships a lot easier. 5/5 stars, would recommend.
The more you talk to people about it, the more they may be able to help you – This one sucks. It is horrible to talk to people about what you are going through. I would recommend communicating this when you are going through a good time. That way when you are going through a bad time you won’t have to talk to them about it, they already know. Just a word of caution with this one. Some people struggle to learn, so be judicious with your limited energy. It may not be productive to keep hammering some people with the information. Having said that if it is a relationship that is key to your life (family/a close friend) then it is worth persevering!
Finally, practice gratefulness – This is very important. Not only will it have a great effect on the psychological aspects, but will improve the quality of your relationships. If there is anyone in your life who means something to you, or has in the past, let them know. Let people know when they have a positive influence on you and constantly practice thinking about the blessings in your life from others, even when they feel negligible/non-existent.
How to help those with depression
This picture is of me and two of my brothers right before we told Ali about the crocodiles in the river. We then proceeded to push him in after he was suitably scared. This is not how to be a good teammate, teamwork makes the dream work. Don’t be like me and Alban in this instance.
This next section is for people who are friends with someone who has depression, or is in relationships with them. I am not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination. Prior to suffering from depression I would have been a terrible person to be around if others had depression. Despite that here are some ideas on how to help people with depression.
Remember each depression is different, but your job is to get to know the individual – Everyone suffering with depression has a slightly different tale. Reading up on it, understanding it, and asking questions can make a massive difference. However, your primary job is to get to know the individual because they are very valuable. Don’t generalize depression and assume that it is the same in all cases. Keep focused on getting to know the individual, their struggles, their strengths, their limitations etc.…
Learn about depression – This can go a long way. If you find out that your friend/family member has depression be honest about what that means to you. For a lot of people it doesn’t mean that much. There is no point in pretending that you know more than you do. This could be very damaging and could lead to trust issues. Instead, be honest about your lack of knowledge and show a willingness to learn. Ask questions (when appropriate), read up on it, ask medical professionals for help. Show the person with depression that you are interested in learning more about depression. This investment is an indication of how much you value the relationship.
It means so much to me when my friends read about depression, ask questions, and read my blog (hint hint)! These are various ways that I feel like people are valuing our relationships and investing in it. A lot of the time I am not in the mood to answer questions and would rather come face to face with a blast-ended skrewt. However, I still really appreciate it, and often get back to the person when I am feeling better because it is very important to me.
Don’t try to relate to the feelings please – If someone shares that they have depression and that they are going through a tough time please don’t say ‘I know what that is like,’ or ‘I went through something similar at uni.’ First of all, if someone with depression shares something with you it will be very challenging for them to do so. Trying to relate it to something in your own life is not what they want to hear. Give them a hug and thank them. They have just confided in you something very challenging.
One of the worst things people have ever said to me is trying to relate their experiences to mine when they have not had depression. Yes, failing an exam is real problem in your life and should not be trivialized. However, to compare the exam stress to struggling to find motivation to live devalues what I am going through. It makes it feel like you don’t care about what I am going through. It makes it feel like you were not listening to me, you only heard what you wanted. It makes it feel like you care more about your exam than me.
Having said that, sharing your experiences can be a very powerful tool for building relationships. Even letting them know that you had a close relationship in the past who had depression can help build trust and develop the relationship. However, don’t open with this. This is a very powerful tool, but needs to be used in the proper context.
Help fight the stigma – One of the most powerful things that could be done is to fight the stigma around mental health. This will make it easier for all people to share for years to come. There are various ways to do this.
- Learn about these things. The facts are misunderstood and not well circulated. The more they are the better off people with depression will be.
- Educate people. If you hear someone say something incorrect about depression correct them. The more bad information/attitudes that circulate the worse it will become.
- Don’t make unnecessary assumptions. This is critical. Starting from a position of humility and then seek to learn from those who have/had depression. Ask a lot of questions.
- Talk about mental health publically. This is a subject that if it is not discussed in public then it is not being suitably dealt with. Other issues, such as how having broken a leg is painful, don’t require the same level of public engagement.
- Accept that there is a lot of stigma. It is a horrible experience for us and makes our life hellish at times. I lost a lot of respect for someone recently because they disagreed with me that there is stigma, and they don’t have depression.
Be a good listener – Please just sit there, ask some questions, and then shut up. You should not judge them. This sounds like it should be obvious, but a lot of people really struggle with this. They think I should be doing more to fight it or that I am making mistakes in the way that I am going about it. They may not verbally articulate it, but the difference between a good listener and a bad one is clear. When someone wants to talk about depression it is not because they are looking for you to critique their life.
People with depression still need lots of accountability and still need to be challenged when they are not doing enough. However, this does not come in the listening part. Listen first and problem solve later. Just trust what they say. One way that I have lost a lot of respect for people recently is when they don’t hear what I say. When I say that I am struggling with X they hear ‘he is making mistake Y and so needs to sort it out.‘ If I say something to you about depression I am saying it honestly and earnestly, don’t doubt me.
This involves trusting what we say and not looking to agree/disagree with it, but rather just listening.
Learn how to ask good questions – This is a bit of trial and error. However, here are a few suggestions. Ask questions when the person is going through a good spell. They will be able to articulate their thoughts better at this time. Plan ahead with them in these times.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. You may ask a hurtful question, but more likely than not it is a great way to show that you care.
Learn when not to ask questions. When I am feeling terribly anxious and never want to talk to another human being it probably isn’t the time to ask questions. I am literally scared to answer.
Try to ask questions that don’t have a lot of assumptions, but rather display a humility which is willing to learn. There are stupid questions in this case, and most of them revolve around you having hurtful and incorrect suppositions about the nature of depression/anxiety.
Be patient – People with depression can become very grumpy, or frustrating, or say hurtful things without meaning them. This is because they are overwhelmed at what is going on inside their head, not because they are actually mad at you or because you have done something wrong. Please cut us some slack, we really need it.
Be encouraging – There often seems to be a battle between the head and the heart with depression. The heart seems to shrivel up and shun emotions. This leaves you feeling distraught/desolate/apathetic/isolated. What is crucial when this happens is that you know in your head various truths that your heart can no longer tell you. These are things like…
- You are a valuable person
- You are fearfully and wonderfully made
- You are a dear friend
- You are cared for
- You have a positive impact on the lives of others
These types of things won’t make them better, but they are necessary. If people with depression stop believing these things the situation will get a lot worse. Try and break the stereotypes, be awkward, and verbally articulate all the things that you think are great about the person. This includes correcting them if they say negative things about themselves. If you ever hear someone say something like ‘I’m a mess
,’ don’t let them get away with it!
Hopefully these ideas helped. They won’t work for everyone, but in my experience (and those whose advice I got whilst writing) these are some helpful tips. Let me know if you have any ideas on feedback, or tips of your own I should include. As always please get in touch if you have any questions.