How to support a struggling friend without offending them

Watching a loved one struggle is tough. Here's how you can reach out and show your support.
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Given that one in three Australians will face mental health issues during their lives, it’s safe to assume that most of us have or will know someone who needs our support at some point. And yet while being a good friend comes quite naturally, helping someone who is suffering from low mood, anxiety or depression isn’t always intuitive. Nor is it easy.

“We can sometimes feel discomfort around our family and friends’ emotional experiences, especially if we think it is our job to fix what they’re going through or if we’re concerned about saying the wrong thing,” says clinical psychologist Dr Jodie Lowinger, author of The Mind Strength Method. One of the most powerful things you can do, she says, is allow that person to feel your kindness and connection.

Still not sure what to say to a depressed friend? Read on for expert advice.

Consider yourself

When it comes to helping someone with depression, the adage that you must help yourself before you can help others rings true, says psychologist David Godden, clinical director of The Bay Retreats in Byron Bay. “It’s normal to have a range of feelings yourself when around a loved one’s depression, grief or mental health challenge,” he says. “You might be feeling helpless, angry, worried, frustrated or sad, and being aware of your own feelings is a good first step towards ensuring they don’t get in the way of helping a person who is suffering.”

Cross the line

When people are depressed or anxious, they withdraw, so a conversation about their mental health can feel like you’re overstepping. “The most important thing is that you should not avoid the uncomfortable conversation,” says David, noting that a lot of the time our own discomfort stems from a fear of vulnerability. Another issue is that people can feel inadequate. “If you are the person there in that moment with your friend or family member, then you are the best – and sometimes the only – person who can offer support.”

Tread lightly

Being worried about someone is one thing; knowing how to approach them is another. “One of the easiest ways is to think about something they enjoyed in the past that they have not done for a while, and remark on this,” says David. For instance, with someone who enjoys swimming, you might say “I was at the beach yesterday and the water was freezing. Have you noticed that when you swim?” If they say they haven’t been for weeks, you could follow it up with, “That’s not like you. Have you been feeling okay?”

Avoid instructions

We’re hardwired to jump into solutions mode when we discover a problem. However, when it comes to supporting someone with depression, telling them what to do can intensify the emotional experience or make them shut down. Instead, acknowledge your friend’s emotions without judgement. “Statements such as ‘I’m here with you’ help them feel heard and connected,” says Dr Lowinger.

Listen up

Before you approach someone, it’s worth considering whether you have what it takes to listen. “Learning how to sit with your own and others’ vulnerability takes time, as does the ability to listen,” says David. “First and foremost be present, not distracted. Put down the phone, face the person and give them your full attention. Ask them if they want you to respond or to just listen.” An effective way to keep the conversation going is: “Can you tell me more?”

Be a boomerang

It’s quite possible that when you share your concerns, your friend politely declines help. Or perhaps not so politely (this is pretty much guaranteed if you label them as depressed or sad, says David). Do you respect their wishes? “Gentle checking in is helpful,” says Dr Lowinger, who suggests saying something like, “I’m here whenever you’re ready.”

This can be a juggling act between respecting a person’s wishes and engaging in actions that may help them turn things around. For Dr Lowinger, it comes down to trusting your gut. “If your intuition says you are concerned about your friend’s wellbeing, then listen to it.”

Look within

So, you’ve had a conversation and they’ve asked for your advice. While sharing your ideas is good, David points out that this is also a chance for them to connect with their own (possibly forgotten) strength and wisdom. “Ask them what they think of the situation or, if roles were reversed, what their advice would be. This can help a person connect with their own ability to be the leader of their own recovery while also feeling supported.”

Speak, don’t do

Helping loved ones is part of who we are as human beings, says David, but it can also be counterproductive. “Doing small tasks like laundry or picking up groceries is always helpful. However, identify when you are enabling the behaviour. For instance, if someone is consuming alcohol or drugs at increasing levels or is always late for work, stepping in and taking the responsibility of daily life away from them can exacerbate the problem.” This is especially common with parents. “It’s not always what the person needs,” says David. “Gauge whether your loved one can help themselves and if they have chosen not to, or if they can’t.”

Paint a picture

When it comes to helping a partner who’s shutting you out, sharing how their behaviour is affecting you may resonate, because they’re less likely to take it as criticism. “One of the most common situations I face in my role is being contacted by someone whose partner is drinking too much, which can be a sign they need help and support, but who shut the conversation down,” says David.

If this sounds familiar, say something like: “When I see you drinking it makes me feel so upset, because I want to help you but I know this is something you have to do for yourself.” It just might let you get close enough to help.

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