When I was a new mom, and in the throes of postpartum depression, I remember just wishing someone could understand. And now, many years later, I still wish some days that we talked more about mental health, and what it feels like to parent with a mental illness like anxiety or depression which is why I so desperately wanted to write my book, The Mother Load.
What most depressed or anxious people want, whether they are parents or not, is support when they are going through a difficult episode with their mental health. However, many people just don’t have a ton of experience talking about anxiety and depression. Because when you’re the one suffering, it’s hard to open up and tell people, “Oh by the way, I’m depressed!” or “I’m sorry I’m not coming. I’m really anxious.”
Most people want to help.
They wish there was something more they could do. Perhaps they feel helpless, or awkward, and all they can seem to muster up is advice and their perspective on what their friend with anxiety or depression should do. But, the result is that friend that you so badly want to support feels even more alone after being given more ideas of things to do that they’ve probably already tried.
The person who suffers from anxiety and depression often feels misunderstood, and the one trying to give advice feels frustrated. Sound familiar?
For me, advice about changing my attitude or just focusing on the positive didn’t help. If it was that easy for me, I would have done it. In my hardest times of a depressive episode, or high anxiety, I just wanted to feel loved, and not judged. And, most of all, I just wanted to feel supported.
The number one thing I hope people that want to help take away from this post is that you can be supportive without making suggestions.
I can easily tell people what NOT to do if a friend seems like they are depressed or anxious.
First, don’t say, “You know, I think you might be depressed.” Or “maybe you have a chemical imbalance?”
The truth is, most people who have ever suffered from depression, or anxiety, or stress know that they are suffering from depression, anxiety, or stress. That’s why they call it “suffering.”
Second, don’t talk about that friend to other people. Don’t mention to a mutual friend that you are “really worried about them” and then not reach out the actual depressed or anxious friend.
So what are the things you should do for a friend to show support when they are struggling with anxiety or depression? Here are 10 ideas:
Call just to check in. No, you don’t have to say that you’re checking in about their mental illness. Just be real, and let them know you are there if they need you.
Offer to do something specific. I write a lot about motherhood and mental health, so the first idea that comes to mind is to offer to watch the kids. But, you could also offer to give them a ride somewhere, or just come over and sit on the couch with them. No talking needed.
Take them out to do something fun. Don’t be offended if they say no. Just let them know the offer stands when they are feeling more up for it.
Simply ask: “Are you OK?” Maybe they will say, “I’m fine” and you know they’re not. Here’s a hint: that’s code for, “I don’t want to talk about it.” Maybe they don’t want to talk about it in that moment. Maybe they just don’t want to talk about it with you. Maybe they just don’t want to talk about it with anyone. When they say they’re fine, let it go. But, with the caveat that it’s OK not to be OK and if they’re not fine, you can handle hearing about it.
Show affection. Give them a hug, or even just an arm over a shoulder, and tell them something generic like, “I’m not sure what’s going on, but I hope things get better soon.”Nothing else needs to be said.
Bring their favorite treat. For me, it would be a large diet coke and a box of chocolate. That will always make me feel loved.
Encourage. Write a note, send a text, or an email telling them one thing you admire about them. Building someone up is a far better alternative than suggesting things they can fix.
Do your homework. Learn about what depression feels like or how it manifests. Study up on how an anxiety attack feels. Show that you care, and they might trust you more to open up later.
Do something that is out of your comfort zone. Stop worrying about whether it will be uncomfortable for you and reach out to do something that you might not normally do. Tell them you are showing up in your pajamas for a movie night. They don’t even have to get out of bed if they don’t want to.
Say, “That must be so hard, I’m here for you.” and nothing else. Don’t tell them to count their blessings. When someone is feeling depressed or anxious, that might make them feel guilty that they aren’t seeing the beauty in the world around them.
Mental health issues are invisible to the outsider, so it is sometimes difficult for those of us that “suffer” to talk about them.
There are still many people that don’t realize I struggle with anxiety on a regular basis or refuse to take the time to understand what I deal with. If you want to be supportive, the thing your friend needs the most is love, friendship, and most importantly, non-judgment.
If you can give that, then you are already doing the work of supporting them. That’s really all they need.
Meredith Ethington is an award-winning writer and author of her new book, The Mother Load where she writes all about motherhood and mental health. She started writing on her popular blog, Perfection Pending, where her viral essays reach millions of struggling parents. She lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with her husband, three kids, and muppety dog, Millie. In her loads of spare time, she is studying to become a licensed mental health counselor. She also has a cat, but honestly, she’s a dog person. To learn more about Meredith go to perfectionpending.net