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What to Do When Your Friend is Depressed

By CHRISTOPHER ZHENG
Student at Union County Magnet High School

Everyone has had a bad day. Many people have had times in their life where they feel like everything is crashing down on them,but eventually, they get through it. They find a way to keep their head above the water and struggle through another day. But sometimes, it feels impossible to think of that struggle for another day. Looking at the outside, it’s hard to know when it is this serious,when your friend is seriously depressed.

Depression is a serious mental illness that takes an emotional and physical toll on affected individuals, and sometimes leaves them unrecognizable–even to themselves. When someone is depressed, the pain can become unbearable and it can sometimes feels like the world has turned a blind eye to that person, oblivious to their cries for help, which makes it worse. Sometimes, it becomes necessary to share this crushing weight of emotion with someone, typically a friend or loved one.

I was one of those people.

The entire situation came out of nowhere. I had a friend in middle school, who I will refer to as T, and we shared a few classes together. He was friendly, funny, and always found a way to bring laughter into long days at school. In class, I experienced him as a genuinely nice person and, as we became closer, a reliable friend. For most of the time I knew him, he appeared to have a consistently positive mindset and it was difficult to imagine him ever unhappy, let alone depressed or suicidal. Yet, as the school year came to a close and everyone said their farewells, I noticed T leaving, on the last day, without so much as a word to any of his friends.

It seemed odd, but didn’t strike me as particularly dangerous that day. I later learned that this was the first indication of something I could never have imagined. We kept in touch in the beginning of the summer, but gradually T began texting me more and more, telling me of his depression and psychological state. I felt somewhat overwhelmed — after all, I had other activities and commitments during the summer. I could tell that from our conversations that T didn’t have the energy or motivation to commit to anything and yet said he was wishing he was doing more. Our conversations shifted toward emotionally dark topics, and I found myself constantly needing to convince T of his own self-worth. In retrospect, I was relatively unaware of how depressed he really was and yet felt the weight of his dependence on me.

Gradually T began telling me that he had thoughts of self-harm and suicide and I became extremely worried. For as much as I cared about him as a friend, I had no idea of how to help someone in an emotional crisis. Though I genuinely believed that he would not likely follow through with those thoughts, I spent many anxious and even frantic moments of heated exchanges trying to convince him not to hurt himself. As more time passed, I found myself worrying more and more about T. The persistent worrying led me to constantly make sure I was available for him, in case something happened with T and he decided to hurt himself or worse. Despite whatever issues I was dealing with in my own life and despite school work, family needs, social situations that I wanted to focus on, I often had to drop everything at a moment’s notice because I cared about T. I was scared not to be there for him and would do anything to prevent him from killing himself. Almost every day I made the choice of sacrificing my own needs to be there for him.

It took a heavy toll.

Looking back, I realize I should have told T’s parents as soon as he told me he was thinking about hurting himself so he could get the help he needed.

With such emotional darkness, so little preparation, and no expertise, these episodes terrified me and haunted my every waking thought. Frustrated and scared, my emotions only heightened when T implored that I keep this matter a secret. I felt I couldn’t violate his confidence and was unable to talk to anybody about his plight or what to do. Looking back, I realize I should have told T’s parents as soon as he told me he was thinking about hurting himself so he could get the help he needed.

In the weeks that followed, T began cutting himself, claiming that it was the only way he was able to deal with this ever-growing pain. I read his messages, horrified and uncomprehending, I begged him to stop and seek professional help. There were many times where T had told me that he would end it all on that night, and I would spend the entire night coming up with any and every reason to keep him here.

In those months, I felt as if I were walking through a minefield, like any small thing could set off a catastrophe. I felt torn: I was compelled to ignore T and hoped the problem would go away entirely, and yet I knew the consequences that would likely arise. Reporting T and getting him help might inflict even more damage, and I felt the responsibility was too much for me to bear. More than this though, at times I felt incredible hatred and anger. Anger at the world, for putting T in this position, for trapping me between two impossible choices. Anger at every person and thing that had gone wrong. Anger at myself, for not knowing the right thing to do, and for not being able to help my friend more. Experiencing this excruciating helplessness is something I believe I will never forget.

Just around the time that school started, someone anonymously notified T’s mother about his depression. Luckily, T was able to connect with his mother, tell her what was going on, and accepted therapy as a method of healing. After just a month, T had made huge improvements and was back to his former self, able to balance studies, a social life, and his personal hobbies. He thanked me time and time again for helping him get through that dark period, and to this day we remain friends.

There are countless people every year in just our nation just like T, and similarly, there are just as many people like me. In 2017, there were 47,173 reported suicides and an estimated 1,400,000 suicide attempts in the United States alone. These statistics make 2017 the year with the highest number of suicides and attempts and the trend predicts that these numbers will only go up. Despite the high success rate of treatment for depression, many of those afflicted do not seek treatment. There are a number of reasons. In T’s case, it was a disbelief about its validity and effectiveness, shame, the fear of stigma, denial about having suicidal thoughts to begin with, and confusion on how they wish to proceed. However, this does not mean that as a friend, you cannot help.

I learned that the recommended treatment options for depression revolves around two major concepts: prescription drugs called antidepressants and various forms of psychotherapy. Although antidepressants can help manage the mental state of a depressed individual, the drugs will not address the issue thatcaused the individual to be depressed. As a result, antidepressants are usually prescribed with some form of therapy, and the two work in tandem. Different types of therapy may work better for certain individuals.

This is where your friendship comes in.

You may not have the same training as a therapist, but there are certain things that you can do to help a loved one or close friend who is going through depression. Here is some of the advice I was given.

  • First and foremost, strongly and firmly suggest to them to seek professional help. Other services, such as the Crisis Text Line and the Suicide Prevention Lifeline Chat, offer free, 24/7, confidential text lines for moments of crisis.
  • Take care of yourself too, or you won’t even be able to be there for your friend.

Throughout the various experiences I went through with T, I discovered and learned a lot of things. I felt the effects of compassion fatigue—being exhausted and depleted from constantly giving to your friend without taking care of yourself.  Upon reflection, I realized that I felt this way most of the time.

I didn’t know what to do – or who to reach out to. I found that trying to relax myself mentally was an effective focus point for recovering and self-centering. Mindfulness exercises, such as controlling my breathing and envisioning calming scenery, were especially helpful to me. Another thing that was effective was physical relaxation exercises. Activities like yoga, meditation, and walking outside relaxed me both physically and mentally. Consciously loosening and unclenching my muscles served as a solid foundation for a healthy recovery. I made sure to eat enough and drink plenty of water, and do safe activities that made me happy or that I enjoyed.

Taking care of yourself is the first step towards being able to help someone who is hurting. As I discovered through research and reaching out to others, there is no all-encompassing guide to helping someone through depression. Social support is key for someone who is suicidal and there may be moments you know they can’t be alone. Simply texting them or leaving messages may not be enough; it may be crucial that you physically stay with your friend until a trusted adult can be present. In some cases, your friend may not have a trusted adult or mentor in their life. In this case, it may be up to you to identify someone in your own life or in your school who can help your friend take next steps. If you can’t find anyone to help, the next step would be  to text “HELP” to 741741 or call the Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or contact local emergency services, 911, in the face of acute danger

It’s also important that you realize it is okay to discuss depression with your friend or loved one. By asking them questions about their depression, you are not putting ideas in their head—in fact, talking to them about what they are going through is one of the most helpful things you can do. When I was more open with T about my intentions and my concerns, I found that rather than shutting himself away, as I was afraid he would do, he was honest—which was crucial to both of our well-beings. Share your opinions, listen to what they are saying, and empathize to the best of your ability. If you can think of absolutely nothing to say, you can help facilitate their positive thought processes. For example, if they are at the point where they believe there is nothing else to live for, try to find just one thing for them to look forward to. I remember talking to T about how we had promised to play a new video game together, and as small as it sounded, it appeared to have a profound effect on T and gave him some hope. But if your friend is really having thoughts of self-harm, it is imperative to engage with adult help to get professional care as soon as possible.

However, there is always the possibility of any situation going in an unintended direction. I made many judgement calls when talking with T, and some of them may not have been the best course of action, but I made sure to keep his safety my utmost goal. It may be necessary to break some promises: for example, you may need to promise them confidentiality in order to keep someone talking but it is important to notify family, or the school or even a hospital if you are afraid of imminent danger. I was initially unwilling to contact professional resources for help because I felt that it would be a betrayal of T’s trust and push him to make a drastic decision, but in hindsight, getting help from  a direct service organization was one of the most important steps in T’s recovery. Crisis Text Line and The Lifeline offer programs and resources to help deal with these situations. The Jed Foundation has lots of useful informational resources on their website.

The feeling of wanting to help but not knowing how can be devastating when the cost could be a person’s life, especially someone who you are close to. I have personally known what it is like to stay up at night wondering if something terrible is happening at that exact moment and not being able to do anything about it. Learning to help means learning that you can only help so much. You cannot convince someone of their will, or make them want to live. If you have been as caring, positive, and supportive as you think you are capable of, then you have done all you can. I had to tell this to myself over and over and over again. I knew I had given it my all, and you are not held responsible if a tragedy were to occur.

Depression is not easy to overcome. It can batter, bruise, and beat down everyone involved–and, it will try to break your spirits in every way imaginable. It is not easy to move through it; but it is possible. Honest compassion and genuine support for one another goes a long way to helping someone feel less alone and even more hopeful. My friend and I have been through extremely hard and trying times, but we stand together alive and well. It has changed our lives, and left us with something we will never forget, but we are all the stronger for it. Together we fought the battle—and won.

Christopher Zheng is a junior at Union County Magnet High School. As a student and youth facilitator at Imagine – A Center for Coping with Loss, he has seen the effects of deep trauma and depression on youth and is determined to raise awareness for such a key yet overlooked issue. Chris is continuously finding ways to get involved with this ongoing battle, and trying to bring awareness not only to the general public but also to communities and groups. By exploring different forms of media and searching for areas to innovate, Chris hopes that he can contribute in a meaningful and impactful way to the war against depression. 

Get Help Now

If you or someone you know needs to talk to someone right now, text HOME to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for a free confidential conversation with a trained counselor 24/7. 

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, text or call 988.

If this is a medical emergency or if there is immediate danger of harm, call 911 and explain that you need support for a mental health crisis.

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