Reaching out to a depressed friend?
July 5, 2018 11:38 AM   Subscribe

I have a friend who's having a severe depression exacerbation. We are close but not best friends and know each other through work. My friend has opened up about their experiences with depression and is engaged in therapy, taking meds, and doing as much as they can to help themselves. I've been especially worried lately, though, as it seems the spark has gone out of their eyes and I'm worried about their well-being.

Friend has struggled with depression for many years and previously had inpatient hospitalizations. A series of events have made their life extra hard over the past couple of years and there's not much sense of things abating any time soon. Over the past few months, my friend has seemed to slip further and further down (e.g., strong emotional overreactions to small triggers and sort of unable to self-regulate) and lately has gone sort of completely flat, almost as if they've been sedated.

As mentioned above, they're engaged in counseling (a couple of different therapists plus a doc overseeing meds) and doing their best to do some self-care. I do my best to reach out and invite friend for coffee, dinner, etc., and am tuned in to not being a dolt and boasting about my great life. My friend will start to tell me how things are going and then can't continue as they're overwhelmed. So they'll cry and change the subject to ask me how I'm doing. I of course don't want to push or pry, but the flat affect has worried me and I'm wondering if I should talk to my friend about it. I don't want to make them feel worse, of course, but also want to let them know I'm still thinking about them and not going to abandon them and will be there if they need me.

Do you have any suggestions for this situation? Should I just continue to reach out and invite friend for coffee and talk when needed? Should I write a letter and let them know I'm worried about them? Butt out and mind my own business? Something completely different? I've seen this thread, but my friend doesn't seem to be isolating, so I don't think a welfare check is appropriate.

Thanks for your insights.
posted by stillmoving to Human Relations (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Could you invite your friend to a play or concert or activity that's maybe a month or two away? I think this would be a good approach for a couple reasons - it gives them something to look forward to, it's not as talk-intensive as a coffee or dinner meet up, it still gives you an opening to have that conversation if they want, and it could bring some more fun into your friendship.
posted by galvanized unicorn at 11:57 AM on July 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

My best friend sent me cards when I was like this. Sometimes they were silly, sometimes they were heartfelt. She usually wrote, "Just saying hey. Love, (friend)." It was wonderful. I don't know where she found some of the cards. Maybe on Etsy? Dunno. It made a difference for sure.

PS: Thank you for caring for and about your friend in this way. ❤️
posted by Hermione Granger at 12:10 PM on July 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

As someone who has people in their lives who struggle with depression, I am going to suggest being direct with your friend. Let them know that you see that they are struggling and that you are concerned, let them know that you are there for them in whatever way they need, let them know that if they are ever in acute distress they can call on you.

And then you can continue to offer support in the way you have been by asking them for coffee, inviting them out.

I like the idea of cards and think you could do that in a work setting. Just leave a little note or token at their desk every week that reminds them they are cared for and supported.
posted by brookeb at 12:13 PM on July 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

I have had times like this and on balance I would say it's good when someone acknowledges it, even if it makes me feel kinda weird and uncomfortable at the same time. Or even if it's not pleasant or reassuring to hear, having other people acknowledge that there is Obviously Something Wrong has sometimes been a prompt for me to take the need for treatment (or more aggressive treatment) more seriously.

There have been times when I've been in that state where I've been simultaneously totally unable to really respond/disclose to the person saying it because everything is so jammed up inside I can hardly talk, and uncomfortable that someone noticed how ill I clearly was, and genuinely grateful that they'd mentioned it because so many people don't. The social contract in my work and friendship groups doesn't tend towards acknowledging this kind of behaviour/affect even when it's obvious, out of awkwardness and politeness and fear of embarrassing or upsetting the clearly-distressed person.

This is nice in theory but can really increase the sense of isolation and of the whole thing being in your head. It's very surreal to be that depressed in a social situation like a party or a work meeting where everyone is pretending that nothing is wrong so as not to embarrass you. Having at least some people in your life who are willing to acknowledge and validate what is happening during a time like this is really helpful.

I would recommend gentle persistence in inviting them to do things, ideally low-key things, even if they turn you down a few times - again sometimes it feels like people stop inviting you if you say no two or three times, maybe because they feel like they don't want to bother you and maybe because they think you're unreliable. It stings to know you haven't been invited to something because you were too depressed to attend the previous couple of invitations, and having this happen tends to reinforce depression-related negative self-image around being unlikable. It's nice to get consistent invitations from a few people who also understand that sometimes you won't be able to come because of reasons. It's a very kind thing to show a very depressed person that you're willing to hang on until they're ready to engage with the world again, that you care and you think they're worth the wait.

When you're hanging out, be as forgiving as you can if their reactions/facial expressions/body language etc. are a little (or a lot) screwier than usual and try not to take anything personally even if it's very weird or negative. It can be hard to see what's going on underneath the flat affect, but I've had times when the outside was frozen up but the inside was racing paranoid, hostile, panicky or suicidal thoughts. It's a very weird state to have even very basic social interactions in, so kindness and patience are really appreciated.
posted by terretu at 12:33 PM on July 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

You don't need to do anything special aside from hang out with them. maybe spend time together in a way that doesn't depend on conversation. Go to the movies, or the zoo. Don't ask how they are if the answer is a) shit, and b) you can't do anything to change it. Just hang out and be a friend who's there.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:40 PM on July 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

seconding the "low key hangout" and "not necessarily talking" options. Suggestions:
jigsaw puzzles, 300 pieces, 500 pieces MAX. Seeing chaos resolve into a picture quickly is a great way to help your friend feel like they are accomplishing something.
ask them to help you bake/cook something fairly easy. A big batch of drop chocolate chip cookies would be good -- lots of short repetitive motions plus the soothing smell of baking cookies. And if they are amenable, have them help you with cleanup.
combine the above with podcasts or an audiobook? Something funny and lighthearted. Or have a movie on in the background.
library hangout: you, them, the public library, for maybe an hour.
posted by snerson at 1:39 PM on July 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Agree with the idea of just doing an activity. Sometimes just being with someone and doing something low-key can be a tremendous help because even a short-term distraction from depressive thoughts can really help. I'm against the whole, "let me know what I can do to help" asking because it can be incredibly hard to not only ask for help, but to actually articulate the ways that someone can help you. You're better off saying, "hey are you free? Let's hang out for a bit" without the added pressure that you're expecting them to unload emotionally. Overall, I think what you're already doing is great.
posted by acidnova at 2:33 PM on July 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

Agree with a) being specific b) offering ways to connect that require the least amount of energy on their part. Also, please don't write this big dramatic letter centering your worry about them like they're too stupid to know they have a problem and deserve the guilt of managing your feelings for you on top of everything else. This is one of those times when kitten gifs are the better option.

Really, the appropriate time to talk to your depressed friend about how to be good support during their depression is when they're not on a downswing, but since things are what they are you should reach out and offer simple opportunities to connect and see if you can have that conversation quickly and kindly without a lot of pressure on them.
posted by Lyn Never at 2:52 PM on July 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

A friend of my offered to come over and just sit quietly with me. The offer was very touching. I am in a brain fog and the offer was kind. I haven't been able to take her up on it yet.

Offer to help in ways where she doesn't have to make any decisions of the activity or time/day. Some suggestions:

I'm going to be at X cafe at Y time. If you're available, I'd love some company.

I will be in your neighborhood on X day at Y time. If you're up to it, I have been wanting to see Z movie. I can stop by and we can watch it together if you're feeling up to it.

I'm going out to a quiet dinner at X restaurant with Y other friends at Z time. I'll be driving past your place and could pick you up at A time.

I'd really like to see X new movie. I'm going to buy tickets for the show at Y time at Z theater. I'll get a ticket for you if you are available then.

I have a standing game night with friends on X day at Y time. This is the address. If you ever want to join, just shoot me a quick text. We'd love to have you.


I'd also make sure your friend knows that she can have a last minute out if she changes her mind or a last minute in if she feels like joining you after all. Also, keep offering unless she tells you to stop asking. One of the things I'm terrified of is that my friends will stop offering.
posted by parakeetdog at 3:10 PM on July 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

One more thing! I started a group chat with some close friends so that we can help build each other up and share our struggles. It sounds silly at first, a group chat as an adult, but it's allowed me to connect with my friends when I'm not able to get out of the house.
posted by parakeetdog at 3:14 PM on July 5, 2018

Thank you for the helpful replies.
posted by stillmoving at 12:43 PM on July 20, 2018

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