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Lesson 6.1 Caring for a Friend with Depression- Seeing the Signs and Talking

The recent suicide of actor Qiao Ren Liang (乔任梁) this September, which grabbed media attention in China, reminds us that everyone is susceptible to severe depression, no matter how talented, successful or well liked they are. Even when our closest friends are affected we may not be able to pick up on the signs or know how to respond. Helen Keller once wrote “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” The question for this week’s classroom is when a friend is going through the darkness of depression, or we think they might be, what is the best way to walk by their side and support them?

Of course this question has no simple answer. No two people with depression are alike. The symptoms and the level of depression differ from person to person (see Depression Essential Series: Lesson 2.1 Symptoms of Depression). The best way to support your friend also depends on their personality and your unique relationship. That said, in today’s classroom we are going to present some key guidelines we have compiled about how to spot depression in a friend and discuss depression with them.

The chapter will be structured in three parts.

  • Lesson 6.1 will talk about spotting the signs and talking about your friend’s depression.

  • Lesson 6.2 will discuss helping your friend seek help and supporting them through treatment.

  • Lesson 6.3 will conclude with responding to suicide/crisis situations and looking after your own wellbeing while caring for a friend

Depression has many faces and people present in different ways. For some this might be as dramatic as insomnia and weight loss in others changes are more subtle, such as not going to weekly activities or even not posting Wechat moments. To spot when your friend may be facing depression…

  • Educate yourself about depression symptoms (Classroom’s article Depression Essential Series: Lesson 2.1 Symptoms of Depression).

  • If you are concerned by changes in their behavior talk with them about what you have noticed, see the next section for tips about talking about depression.

  • If you already know your friend is living with depression ask them about what the warning signs are for them when they enter a phase of depression. Are they aware of any changes in their behavior when they feel low? Do any particular events or situations tend to trigger their depression, e.g. work stress? This information can help you be vigilant about the onset of your friend’s depression and be proactive about offering support.

Talk about Your Friend’s Depression The stigma surrounding mental health means talking about depression can be uncomfortable. Knowing what to say and how to bring up the subject can be difficult. The right way to talk to your friend depends on their personality and situation, but here are some general tips to help discuss depression in a sensitive and open way.

  • Talk openly: Talk about the changes you have noticed using clear, honest language without trying to hide the subject. Talking openly helps show your friend they can express themselves without feeling ashamed.

  • Listen: When talking to someone about their depression, being a compassionate listener and giving your friend space to express their feelings, is often more important than what you actually say. Try and ask your friend open questions that allow them to share, such as, “When did you start to feel like this?” and, “How can I support you?”

  • Don’t be judgmental or assumptive: Part of being a compassionate listener is responding without judging your friend or making assumptions. Don’t presume you know the exact causes of their depression, the effects it has on their life or best treatment option for them. Avoid judgmental statements that minimize your friend’s experience like, “This is just a phase,” or “It’s not that bad.” Depression isn’t caused being weak, or not trying hard enough to get better, so avoid unhelpful statements like, “You need to snap out of it” or, “You just need to think positively.” Instead, try and respond in a supportive way that highlights the positive.

  • Be patient: Let your friend set the pace. It’s probably not easy for them to talk about the difficult emotions they’ve been experiencing so don’t rush them. Allow long pauses without feeling you have to jump in. Don’t worry if you don’t cover all the details in one talk.

  • Don’t take negative responses personally: It’s not easy for any of us to admit there is a problem so some people may respond negatively when you talk about depression with them. They may be distant or even angry. Try not to take this personally. Remind them that you are there for them if they ever need your support.

Overall, this lesson shows how important it is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression and being able to discuss it openly when helping a friend. In our next lesson we will talk about more guidelines for helping a friend find treatment and supporting them through the treatment process.

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