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Psych 101: When a close friend is depressed

It’s depressing to be with a friend who is truly depressed. You may even get weepy yourself. The black cloud of depression spreads over you too, making you feel like you want to escape and be with anyone else but her. But read this first!

I’ve blogged here repeatedly about the importance of female friendships to women’s emotional and physical well-being—and about the perils of toxic ones as well. I’ve talked about friends who are too needy, too self-centered, too angry, too demanding, or too unreliable and have pointed out that some friendships reach a tipping point when it’s time to call it quits. I still believe that relationships that are consistently draining should be ended or at least, placed on hold.

Then I received a post from a reader entitled, Toxic Friends May Be Crying Out for Help, which reminded me that there are exceptions to every rule—and that it is important to distinguish between a toxic friendship (which is pathological relationship) and depression (which is a mental disorder). Here’s the post:

Dear Irene:

Thanks for pointing out that there are bad friends out there, However I want to play devil’s advocate here and say that in 2006 when ALL and I do mean ALL 5 of my close friends bailed on me like a chain of dominoes I nearly died from the depression it caused. In the wake of that nightmare I found out I had a mental problem and needed HELP. Your call to DUMP Toxic Friendships would be better served by advocating INTERVENTION for people who may possibly be in serious trouble rather than leaving them behind like trash on the street corner.



Yes, there are some cases when close friends need to cut a little slack. Could it be that your friendship feels burdensome and painful because your
friend is depressed?

Recognizing depression

Clinical depression is extremely common, affecting nearly one out of ten people in a given year, and it’s is twice as prevalent in women as it is in men. It’s more than a case of the blues or a bad mood that passes. Depression profoundly affects a person’s ability to function. And as hard as someone tries to shake it, it recurs nearly every day, all day, for at least two weeks or longer.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the symptoms of depression may include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” feelings
  • Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
  • Irritability, restlessness, anxiety
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness and/or helplessness
  • Loss of interest in activities or hobbies once pleasurable, including sex
  • Fatigue and decreased energy
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering details and making decisions
  • Insomnia, waking up during the night, or excessive sleeping
  • Overeating, or appetite loss
  • Thoughts of suicide, suicide attempts
  • Persistent aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems that do not ease even with treatment

Does this list of symptoms and signs make you think of one of your friends? Well, this is a reminder. As much as you might like to, you can’t talk a friend out of being depressed. Even a kick in the pants won’t help. Depression is a biological illness.

What you can do

  • If you are a good friend, there are some ways in which you can help and possibly make a difference:
  • You can listen carefully, provide support, and offer to spend some time doing things you enjoy together (taking a walk or bicycle ride, or going to a movie).
  • You can offer to help her with concrete tasks she can’t accomplish on her own because she feels so overwhelmed or has no energy.
  • Try to be patient—and never be pushy. Don’t dismiss her feelings. Show that you understand them but encourage her to realize that these feelings are only temporary and will eventually pass.
  • Don’t pussyfoot around the issue. Remind her that depression is a treatable illness and encourage your friend to seek treatment.
  • If she resists your initial suggestion, try again but don’t nag. Don’t make demands or set ultimatums. Many depressed people need time to find their
    way to treatment and some people just want to be left alone.
  • If you worry that your friend may be harboring suicidal thoughts, you have certain ethical obligations. Be direct and ask her if she feels suicidal. If she does, remind her that she is important to you and that she needs immediate professional help. Never allow the burden of having a depressed friend be yours alone. Be sure to inform someone else (e.g. her partner or closest relative.) If you’re her partner, tell her doctor.

Recognize that you can only be a friend, not a mental health professional. There is just so much that friends can do and so much that they can give. You may need to reluctantly cut loose and be there for her when she begins to recover.

Note: This post is about friendship and isn’t intended as medical advice.

This post can also be read on The Huffington Post.

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Category: Dealing with friends with health and/or emotional problems

Comments (75)

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  1. Amber says:

    I think this is a great blog, but what I really want to do is make my friend aware that depression is not only effecting her but has a real impact on my life too. My housemate and close friend is currently suffering with depression and hasn’t been working for over a month now. I too have suffered with depression in the past and therefore want to be able to support and empathize with her. However despite my good nature I am fining this sooo difficult, she has no understanding of the ripple effect her depression has, and I understand that when you are depressed it is hard to see that, but its just infuriating. I have tried and tried, we gone and bought stuff for the house(mirrors and picture frames etc) as I thought this would be a great distraction and also make her feel useful, she gets excited but then wont wake up the next day as we’d planned to actually do any of it, its really dis heartening and part of me just feels like , whats the point? She has also been very rude to me on a couple of occasions now, with no real need to be, I have let it go so far as I don’t want to add any extra stress to her life by having me pissed off at her too, but it has really upset me and I’m feeling more and more like I don’t even like her. To make things worse she has started going back out with her ex boyfriend as ‘he’s making me happy at the moment’ – it’s like i’m just watching her self destruct,and quite frankly, it’s getting me down. I’m going home every day after work, trying to be the most positive and happy person I can be an d its bloody draining!! And any time I try to say ANYTHING i get my head bitten off. This is a bit rambly, apologies for that, but I’m at a bit of a loose end and any help/advice would be greatly appreciated. thanks.

  2. Mohamed says:

    This is a great thing to read so thanks a lot but it still didn’t help me that much cause she is far far away from me and not even the same country and i just hate when she is depressed cause she is lonely and that i cant do the stuff u said above cause we are bffs but got a lot of distance between us
    so all i can do is tell her words that can help her a little
    but still any ideas or tips that could help me to help her more from my distance :/ ?

  3. Joey says:

    I just loved this blog. It’s helped me in some ways of understanding depression.
    I’m just confused sometimes. She has been diagnosed with clinical depression. And like she is my best friend and I love her to bits but I’m just confused. She talks to me about her depression and at the very start she told me she would like to talk about it with me sometimes and I’ve never forgotten. We’ve always spoken openly something she shouldn’t be ashamed of.
    Myself and Jenny (not real name) knows that she has depression But now she’s been speaking to Jenny (not real name) And said that she hates when I talk about with her. That I’m making it out worse then it actually is. And that it just see worse when I talk about it with her. I just want to know more to understand and help her and she tells me and seems to have no problem doing so. Just jenny told me that my friend said that to her.
    Now I’m just so lost and don’t know what to do??? I know more stuff then Jenny knows and now Jenny told me this?? Any help??

  4. wanda says:

    Hey my name is Wanda and I need help. I have a friend that he liked me a while back but I slowly stopped talking to him because I wasn’t intrestead and he kept insisting after I said no. Yesterday we started talking again and he told me he’s depressed and he tried killing him self. I asked why and he said it was mostly because he was single and every girl he asked out denied him. I felt really bad I felt like it was all my fault I just felt devastated. He told me his therapist told him dating would help. I want to help him in any way I can but I don’t want him to take it the wrong way. I see him like a brother idk what I would do if he died. What should I say or do? How can I help my friend out ?

  5. mplo says:

    I read this article and the comments with much interest, and could identify with everybody, because I, too, had a couple of friends who turned out to be really toxic, and not the kind of people that I wanted as friends.

    When I found something that really piqued my interest and got into doing it, I enjoyed it, and my feelings vanished, making me realize that I didn’t have to associate with anybody I didn’t want to associate with.

  6. renee says:

    I have a friend who is suffering from clinical depression. She has a lot of mental issues going on, so her view on things that happen in life are greatly skewed, but I know she can’t help it. We’re both in our early 30s, and we’ve been friends since about 2011. Our friendship started out very rocky, before she was clinically diagnosed. She was EXTREMELY needy and jealous. She had not really ever had any friendships and she had no clue on how to handle one as an adult. She considers me her “best friend” and “sister”, but I have never felt that way about her. I just recently began referring to her as my friend. I felt sorry for her and also I felt like she needed me to help her a lot. I spend countless hours on the phone with her, giving her advice, trying to help her. But from time to time, I’d break and just tell her that I needed a break, she was burdening me and I needed a break.

    She’s gotten better over the years in general, but she still has these issues and setbacks that make it really hard for her and me to hang out with other people together. She’s fine when we’re alone, but with others, she just does things to bring attention to herself (although I honestly believe not on purpose) and make situations very awkward. We just recently had a blow up about the way she was acting that made it very difficult for me, just because she wanted me to be a certain way or give her attention.

    She’s constantly telling me how lucky she is to have me in her life and that she loves me. She does it to the point that it makes me uncomfortable. Finally earlier this year, I talked her into getting some real help. I basically told her I didn’t want to talk to her or see her anymore until she sought professional help. It sounded harsh, but because she hangs onto every word I say, she did it, and she was getting better.

    However now her medication no longer works. And for some reason, I’m just not up to offering all the advice and help that I did in previous years, and I think I come across as very nonchalant. I listen for the most part, but find myself feeling contempt and being generally annoyed with her. Her problems are beyond my advice. She constantly tells me that she misses my advice and help. But I think she’s emptied me out. Plus my life is very full right now. I have two kids, I’m single, working from home and homeschooling, plus I’m involved in the community and meeting lots of other people, which I can tell she is jealous about. I just don’t have the time or drive to be her shoulder all the time.

    Her drs are trying something new. Meanwhile, she is very depressed and I’m more and more annoyed by her and not wanting to talk with her. I’ve accepted that she is depressed and that it would be hard for her to “act happy”, but I still can’t help that I am completely tired of her. I want to just cut her off, but I’m scared that she would start again with the suicidal thoughts. She’s mentioned that she’s had thoughts again lately of not wanting to live.

    I guess I’m asking how do I relieve myself of her, while letting her know that if she truly, truly needs me, I’m there? Sorry this is so incredibly long. I feel like if I’m constantly looking at her in contempt, I’m not very useful friendship wise, other than to be an ear on other end of the phone, which is really, really annoying me.

    • Danielle says:

      this is a tough situation that I find myself in as well. I have a friend who is considerably younger than I am (27, I just turned 40). We met because we taught together at the same school. Anyway, she is has bipolar disorder and is in a very miserable marriage. The two of them fight constantly and it’s a very complicated, emotionally draining situation. I am a single mom of two kids and a full time teacher. My life is centered around taking care of my family and work yet I try to carve out time for myself which sometimes includes being with friends. This friend in particular has expressed that I’m not being a good friend to her because I’m too busy with my own life. I know that she doesn’t have other friends or people to talk to, and when she expresses these things I just listen and know that deep down she is placing her anger on me for whatever reason. It is very draining to be around her, but I know that engaging with her and arguing is going to feed a need (a self fulfilling prophecy that no one cares). It’s very difficult to be her shoulder to lean on in this situation.

  7. Nocturne says:

    I don’t know if I am very close with this person, but I consider them a friend. I’m guessing that you all get this a lot, but I am trying to get them away from suicide. I am not around them all the time and try to talk to them as much as I can because we live in different states. I hope that they won’t actually do it, though they are severely struggling on the edge. I try and be hopeful, not pushy, send them happy songs, talk to them about their day (as long as they are up for it) and encourage them to keep going. I feel useless and want to be there (I am not an extremely happy person in the first place, but I know I’m not depressed and try to be more optimistic to make them happier). They don’t have many people they can rely on around them and I do not know how to help more than I have already been trying to. He is spiraling and every time I don’t hear from him I am worried. As long as he keeps talking to me, I hold onto hope that when he tells me about his moods and when he’s getting close to it that he wants to be stopped. Am I wrong? Is there any way else I can help?

    • Nocturne says:

      Just an update if this will help anyone thinking to help me out (if not sorry for taking up website space). My friend has quit talking to me and I plan to send him messages to let him know i’ll still be there if they ever want to talk again. Is this also a wrong decision or not?

      • Caelie says:

        Hey Nocturne, I’m not a professional or anything, but if I were in your situation, loosing touch would scare me. I’d definitely tell them you’re still there and try to re-establish super chill contact. And when they get to the point where they have an actual plan to kill themselves I’d have no problems calling family/authorities – cause that’s when it’s really dangerous.

        • Nocturne says:

          Thanks, Caelie. But also, my friend’s family is part of the problem, I’ll mention neglect but not go into more details, so going to them I fear will make it worse in the long run. I feel like I’m riding on an emotional roller coaster with my friend. Sometimes he’s fine, other times he’s calm and ready to go. Is there any specific ways to choose the right words? So far its just been the straightforward truth, since I don’t normally say anything else anyways.

          • Caelie says:

            I totally get the roller coaster feeling. Isn’t it exhausting sometimes? I don’t know any perfect way to choose words – cause I feel like that would vary by situation. For me, when I’m in a bad place in my head, I’m not aware that I’m not thinking rationally (ie. Killing myself seems logical, but later when I’m okay I realize how twisted and unhealthy my thinking was.) If this seems applicable, perhaps it would help to remind him of that – to remind him that he can’t trust his own thoughts and should hold out until they go back to normal? Long term… I don’t know. Real help would be great but sometimes people won’t.

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