What to write to someone who is depressed

This article is not about the professionals’ answers on how to deal with depression. It’s about how we as ordinary people should react when faced with a friend or family member who is dealing with it: the professionals are the next step, if necessary. In the meantime, how can we help our friend appropriately?

How to handle depression in a friend

The most important thing to your friend at this point is just to know you’re there for them

What about your initial response to a friend who is depressed?

You get an email or social media message that alarms you. The sender may well be someone you’ve always known as a jovial character, life and soul of the party, always with a big smile painted on their face. But in between the funny jokes (doctors often talk about “the smiling face of depression”) you sense that all is not well.

They may say they’re having troubles. They may say they’re feeling low. They may not say any of those things but you know, from reading between the lines, that they’re really down.

For any of us as recipients of a message like this, we need to refrain from asking balls-out questions. We need to refrain from using any of those hideous old clichés like “pull yourself together” or “don’t worry, you’ll feel better in the morning” or “you probably just need some anti-depressants from your family doctor – go see them tomorrow.”

So what should we write to these people we love and care for?

One thing is for sure: they do not expect their depression to be trivialised or compartmentalised in any way, hence the need to avoid the comments mentioned above.

Equally, they don’t want you to try to diagnose their problem and suggest remedies. In the vast majority of cases, they need any kind of judgement like they need a broken arm. And this can be a problem for well-meaning friends because of course, our natural tendencies are to try to solve our friends’ problems for them. Sadly though, we’re not the right people to do that.

Much as it may seem inadequate to us, the most important thing to your friend at this point is just to know you’re there for them.

OK, of course … we all get a little bit down now and again and the intervention of a relative or good friend by saying “come on, cheer up, let’s go out tomorrow night for a hoolie and a few glasses of Prosecco …”  is likely to help quite a bit if the person’s problem is only transient.

It’s when you suspect that the depression is not transient that you need to act…

You know that friend or relative. You know if they have just had a bad day, or if there is something else. What if there is, as you suspect, more to it?

I can only put forward ideas as a non-professional – only as a caring friend or relative, so here are my suggestions on what you should write to someone in these circumstances:

See if you can get in touch with them directly, or at least by phone. Emails and social media messages are still rather impersonal and a lot of important information can fall through the cracks. Don’t forget there are other F2F alternatives like Zoom or Skype. Any of these will allow you to see something of your friend’s body language which will help you to understand how they’re really feeling.

  • Ask them how that depression is affecting them overall: occasionally, all the time, to the detriment of their work or family life?
  • Ask them if they have felt like this before, and if so how has it worked out? How did they work through to feeling better?
  • Ask them if they’re feeling overwhelmed and if so how you could help? Not necessarily by holding their hand, but also possibly with practical help like childcare, cooking, house cleaning, or just company?

If you feel there is a bigger problem there than may be resolved naturally – what to write now?

Whatever you do, don’t spook them by suggesting they ask their doctors to refer them to a psychiatrist. As far as I can understand it, the majority of cases of common-or-garden depression (even if they are not transient) can be resolved with simple treatment and counselling at local healthcare level.

Where we get into heavier weather, though, is in cases where we are looking at more complicated depression that may lead to suicidal thoughts and other very serious mental health conditions.

If for one moment you even suspect that your friend may be dealing with a more serious depressive illness, well – in your shoes I would start by consulting my own doctor, or a friend who is a qualified psychotherapist/counsellor/nurse/etc., and see what they suggest is the best way to approach the depressed person.

Depending on what advice you get from the health professional, it may be then that you a) tell your friend they must seek professional help and b) tell your friend’s friends and family that you’re worried for them, and ask that they should intervene.

Is writing to your friend’s family and friends being disloyal?

In some circumstances – particularly if your friend is still in denial about their depression – they may feel that for you to talk “behind their back” to their friends and family is wrong.

Of course, this is a decision only you can make.

But if it were me, I would put my concern for my friend’s life before my concern for their privacy. For all you know, the people closest to your friend may not have noticed that they’re depressed. Often it’s harder to perceive a change in someone if you see them regularly every day, than if you see them less frequently.

Am I being a busybody? Would you be a busybody in the same circumstances?

If push comes to shove and a life can be saved?

What do you think?

Please share your views in the comments.

Further reading:

How to help someone with depression, UK’s National Health Service

Depression: how can friends and family help? MIND charity, UK

How to help someone with depression, Very Well Mind USA