How To Help a Friend or Family Member With Depression or Suicidal Thoughts
We can’t always be happy all of the time. Sometimes we struggle.
Sometimes those people struggling are friends, partners or family members and we can find ourselves feeling lost as to what to do.
Having been through depression myself, and having had friends also suffering I’ve put together a post on how to help a friend with depression, and what to do if you think someone is having suicidal thoughts.
I will be talking frankly and openly in this post so if you feel it may be upsetting or triggering to you in some way, please read on with caution.
IMPORTANT: If you have reason to believe a person has taken something and is in need of medical attention, phone 999 immediately.
And if you yourself are the one struggling, try reading this post too –
What Can I Do To Help Someone With Suicidal Thoughts
If your friend/partner/family member’s personality or behaviour changes it may be a sign they are struggling with depression or having suicidal thoughts. You know them best and you may well be the best person to spot these changes.
Changes can include:
- becoming irritable, anxious or confrontational.
- mood swings.
- acting recklessly.
- sleeping too much or too little.
- preferring to be alone and avoiding other people.
- problems at work or with obligations in their life.
- saying negative things about themselves.
Other signs that can indicate that someone may be more likely to hurt themselves can include:
- threatening to hurt or kill themselves
- talking or writing about death or dying
- actively looking for or taking steps towards a plan to kill themselves such as buying lots of medication
Sometimes people won’t be certain they want to take their own life and will be undecided until the ‘break point’ moment.
A lot of (but not all) people try to reach out before attempting suicide and show others that they are in emotional pain either by telling someone about how they feel, self harming or with other reckless behaviour. If this is someone you know, now is the time to step in and try to help where possible.
My Friend Has Depression, How Can I Help?
The absolute DO NOTS of being there for someone with depression include:
- making them feel rejected
- changing the subject when the try to talk about how they feel
- patronising or deeply analysing their problems
- telling them they are wrong or that their feelings are silly
- telling them to ‘cheer up’
- telling them that they should be grateful to have X,Y, Z or to even be alive at all.
Respect, support and reassurance (lots of reassurance) are what’s needed at this difficult time, and while your friend may need to seek professional help, you can make a difference to their lives in so many ways.
Ways To Help:
Turn Up – I know we’re busy, and texts do really help, but nothing helps more than actual human contact. Sometimes people with depression will lock themselves away because they feel like a burden or that no-one actually wants to see them. Turning up and spending some time with them could help them see this isn’t the case and that people aren’t just texting out of obligation or habit.
Getting Help is the Hardest Part – Seeking professional help either through a walk-in counselling service or seeing your GP may be a good option for someone ready to help themselves out of depression, but it’s the hardest step. If your friend has said they want to seek help then suggest making an appointment for them or offer to sit with them while they do. Also offering to go with them to their appointment and wait in the waiting room will help them feel like they’re not alone and that their decision to get help is supported.
Talk – You’ll get the idea if they want to talk more, they’re your friend after all. But when you’re talking, try to ask open ended questions like ‘how do you feel about…’ rather than ‘do you feel sad about…’. As a rule, try to ask questions that your friend can’t answer a simple yes or no to.
Also try to avoid using the word ‘why’ as it can make some people feel defensive. Why implies blame and your friend will already be blaming themselves for a lot of negative things – we want to get them out of those habits. For example, instead of asking ‘Why did you do that’ try saying something like ‘What made you think about doing that?’. See the difference in how those two sentences make you feel?
Listen – When listening to a friend speak it’s important to let them talk without butting in and interrupting their thought process. Don’t try to play psychiatrist and solve their issues, simply listen. It’s also good practice to relay what they’re telling you back to them so they know they’re really being listened to and understood. Re-iterate occasionally by saying things like ‘So what you’re saying is…’ ‘So you feel that…’. With an understanding (note: not patronising) tone, it can help a person feel like they’re really being heard.
Help Them Get Through The Now – While it’s good to have things to look forward to when you’re feeling down, it’s also incredibly important to focus on the now. Help them get through one day at a time without bombarding them too much with future dreams and plans. Most of the time they won’t even have the brain space to think of that right now.
Don’t Take Their Flakiness to Heart – They’re not being funny with you when they cancel plans and they still love and care for you. But sometimes leaving the house or heading out somewhere can be too much to handle and a person may cancel last minute. It may be hard to understand especially if what you had planned was fun or something they usually love. Sometimes it can all get a bit much. Try to rearrange plans and spend time with them indoors instead and maybe suggest a little walk and a cup of tea in a cafe a bit later. Baby steps, and support.
Confide In Them Back – When I was struggling I felt an overwhelming sense of guilt when opening up to friends about my mental health, like I was the broken one or that I was a burden (neither are the case by the way, I see that now). So occasionally when my friends would open up to me about THEIR problems it really helped. I actually felt useful instead of a drain, and I also felt less alone knowing that other people had problems too – not that I wanted my friends to be sad, it just helped.
Depression can make you tunnel visioned, selfish and think that you’re the only one with issues. Opening up to your friend won’t add extra sadness on top of the sad they already have, but it may help them feel included and needed which can be a huge help.
Make Plans With Distractions – Often going out and feeling like you have to talk can be draining. Making plans to do something that doesn’t require conversation can sometimes help. Think cinema, tv watching, a gym class, a pottery painting session. Sometimes we just need a psychical presence there without the pressure of talking.
Take The Decision Away From Them– Put ideas and plans out there and if they seem keen then sort it all to take the decision and pressure away from them. Sometimes it’s hard to make any decisions at all when you’re depressed, and even if a friend offers help and says things like ‘it’s up to you’ or ‘the offer is there’, often it can be hard to accept.
Saying yes and excepting help when you’re depressed can make you feel defeated and trigger off paranoid feelings of ‘they only offered because they felt like they had to’. I know you might feel like leaving it up to them removes any pressure, but sometimes it can put more on. Try saying things like ‘Right I’m coming round and i’m going to make us lunch, see you in an hour!’ instead of ‘Would you like me to come over and have lunch? It’s up to you’.
Make Plans That Involve Food – Your friend may not be eating so bringing some biscuits round when you go for a cup of tea may tempt them to eat without feeling like you’re babying them – say you bought them for yourself but offer them out. Or centre your plans around food – go out for brunch, lunch, coffee and a sandwich, cinema with popcorn etc. Eat around them and it might also tempt them to dig in.
Call In Randomly – But don’t be offended if they won’t let you in. Sometimes we can feel totally forgotten and will quite easily convince ourselves that’s the case. Offers of company can easily be turned down but if you just turn up, well, they can’t fob you off as easily! Be aware they may be embarrassed about the state of the house or themselves if they’ve been struggling. Reassure them this is fine and…
Take Risks Helping With Practical Things – This one can go one way or the other, but if you go round and there’s washing up, just cheerily start doing it. Or whip the hoover round. It may cause offence, but it also may seriously help your friend out – go for this one on a case by case basis and read the room.
Don’t Underestimate The Power Of A Hug – Human contact can cause wonders. Even if you’re not a hugger, try it out and see if it helps.
Give Them Numbers – If they won’t go to their GP or seek help elsewhere then make sure they have the relevant numbers to call at the bottom of this post.
Keep Trying – This is probably the most important point of all. They will probably try to push you away, give them space and keep coming back. Being there for a friend with depression is hard but please keep trying.
And last but not least…
UK and Ireland: Samaritans –
Outside the UK: Befrienders Worldwide