Let's face it: Depression is one of the biggest epidemics in the world right now, yet still not enough of us are talking about it. Roughly 10 percent of the United States population suffers from depression, including an astounding 30 percent of teenagers and young adults.
In the wake of Anthony Bourdain's suicide and the suicide of fashion mogul Kate Spade, more humans are realizing that depression is far more complicated than "being sad," and it can find you no matter how good your life may seem on the outside.
If you've never experienced it for yourself, there's no way to really know what it's actually like having depression, but that doesn't mean you're powerless to help your friend with depression, or any loved one you think may be internally struggling.
Identifying the Symptoms
Before you can help your friend with depression, you have to figure out if they actually suffer from the disease or not. Most depressed people have a tendency to hide their symptoms, adding to a vicious cycle of needing help, but not receiving it. Depression doesn't always look like a black cloud over somebody's head, so you must take extra care if you think your loved one suffers from depression.
The warning signs of depression can look like a person who is quiet, despondent, or even reclusive. It makes them second guess their actions and doubt themselves. It turns an otherwise positive person into a pessimistic wreck. Oftentimes, someone suffering from depression will display obvious symptoms, like talking about death or explicitly discussing how difficult life is. Depression's symptoms often creep up in less conspicuous ways though, so pay careful attention to your family and friends if you have even the slightest suspicion they may be depressed.
Lately, a lot of focus has (rightfully) been given to the most extreme cases of depression. Symptoms of depression frequently include suicidal thoughts, but everyone who suffers from depression experiences symptoms differently. Your friend may not experience suicidal thoughts, or these thoughts may not be on the forefront of their symptoms. At this stage of depression, you may be able to help your friend cope with their illness before it progresses to a more severe state.
If you want to help your friend with depression, patience and understanding are the keys to offering support. It can be hard to know exactly what to say to a friend with depression, but simply being supportive and nonjudgmental can go a long way. Sometimes, all someone needs is to talk to someone. If you can serve as that outlet and let your friend know their voice is being heard, it can be a big step toward helping them out of the darkness.
Even in non-urgent cases of depression, where your friend or family member experiences the negative symptoms of depression but not necessarily suicidal thoughts, it is absolutely worth seeking out professional help. No matter how mild your friend's depression may seem, it is never a bad idea to recommend speaking to a mental health professional. If your friend broke their arm, you'd tell them to go to the emergency room, right? If your friend has even a minor case of depression, encourage them to seek professional help.
Getting Professional Help
Like an increasing number of teenagers, I suffered from depression when I was in high school. I eventually overcame the illness, but there was no shortage of hurdles along the way. Depression affects everyone differently, but my biggest issue on the path to recovery was my unwillingness to seek help from a mental health professional. I remember instead trying to self-medicate with music, thinking it was all I needed to get me through. At one point, I even emailed my favorite band to thank them for how their music was helping me cope with my suicidal thoughts. It's actually something of a bittersweet memory of mine, as the band's frontman responded personally to me, and now deep, deep in my inbox there's an email from OK Go's Damian Kulash telling me to get professional help (in the nicest possible way).
Anyway, the punchline here is that my coping mechanism wasn't working. Ultimately, I did speak to a number of professionals thanks to the intervention of my close friends and the faculty at my high school. My friends helped me cope with the day-to-day, but I needed professional help before I was able to fully recover. And I did recover.
The best way to help your friend with depression is to not only support them and offer to be their friend, but to encourage them to seek help. You aren't a licensed mental health professional, so don't feel you need to carry the burden of acting like one. The best thing you can do to support your friend is to guide them and encourage them to meet with a professional. It requires immense effort for a depressed person to even admit they need help, so this is truly the area where your support is most crucial.
Actually Giving a Damn
I'm glad the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline exists, really (for the record, that's 1-800-273-8255 in the United States). Many people run the risk of mistaking the Lifeline for a legitimate way of offering help to their friends and family members. The Lifeline is the last line of defense for someone who is teetering on the edge, so it doesn't really make sense to me why so many people share the phone number on Facebook and Twitter every time someone kills themselves. It's almost as bad as sending your "thoughts and prayers" to the parents of children murdered in the latest school shooting.
I want to reiterate I don't think there's anything wrong with the Lifeline itself—it's just that the goal should be to help your friend with depression long before they have to resort to relying on a stranger over the phone to help them overcome their personal demons.
One final note: If you think your friend may be past the point where even the Suicide Prevention Lifeline is of use, don't hesitate to call emergency services if it means potentially saving a life.