Why is it So Hard to Help My Depressed Friend?

Compassionate Love: Displaying Compassion for Those Who Struggle with Mental Illness   (c)2016 Nancy Virden

photo-24722713-blur-image-of-a-beautiful-young-woman.I wondered what God could use me for- what good deeds I could do if I stayed alive. Yet in no way could I feel hope in any idea. I felt solemn dread as if shut up in a dark cave alone.

Drenched in anguish, I stared at my apartment walls, stayed days in bed, or obsessed over emails wanting someone, anyone, to let me know they care.

When an email came it was never good enough. My perception was that no one could or ever would care, so each act of kindness toward me was used as a measuring stick of that person’s sincerity. Long emails meant someone cared more. Did they ask about me? They care a little more. Do they spend time listening? Come back for more?

Nothing was enough. My world was as big as this typed O,  and all that was in it was me and my pain. Inwardly I demanded love be proven while I wrote off anyone who tried.

This was major depression.

On the outside, a person in a major depressive episode may withdraw, and it can look like rejection. It is easy to confuse this behavior with selfishness, self-centeredness, apathy, laziness,   manipulation,  “quitting”, or spiritual weakness. In reality, major depression inhibits our ability to function. No one just snaps out of it, and recovery can be a long process.

That may be why it is so hard to love your depressed friend. Your emotional love may be strong as ever for your pal, but showing that love proves more and more tiring as time goes on. It hurts. It may seem your friendship is no longer trusted, or is one-sided.

You have your own life to manage and mental health to protect. Your friend’s demands and sorrow have a tight hold on your schedule and guilt-levels. You are scared too, because it is impossible to know for sure if everything will be alright until you next see him or her. It is natural to feel angry.

In my seminar, “How to Help Hurting People Without Hurting Yourself,” these themes are directly addressed. Today I will briefly introduce you to two basic keys of survival while caring for a depressed friend. You are not locked in to defeat or exhaustion. You can thrive and also be an effective support.

It is vital to mention that you and I are likely not therapists or doctors. It is never in our friends’ best interests for us to take on those roles. One of the best ways to offer healthy support is to get a depressed person to professional help.

(1) Gain Insight

-Educate yourself on the symptoms of depression and learn what it may be like for your friend on the inside. Although each person is different, much of the struggle is common. It is important to remember major depression is a complex disease, and every patient has to learn how to cope with it.

-Know what to say YES to. Whatever you decide to do for your friend will force an even exchange with some other choice. If you have a spouse and children, hours with your friend on the phone will take away from time spent with family. If you stay up late because your friend is afraid to be alone, you will lose sleep.  

Ask, “what must I have in my daily life to experience joy and to meet my personal goals?” Any answer to the question is fine as long as you are being honest and considering your needs and commitments. Be specific. Have a good idea of your capabilities and a time frame of availability in mind before continuing with this process.

images (16)(2) Set Boundaries and Stick By Them

-Ask your hurting friend what he or she needs. Listen well. It will be a difficult question for him to answer. You may hear, “I need to get to work” or “I need people to get off my back.”

Narrow your question to what your friend may need from you. Then narrow it again to what may be needed from you within your ability and availability limits.

For example, if the answer is, “I want you to be here with me,” you have opportunity to actually schedule visiting times. 

-Give yourself permission to have your own legitimate needs and to get them met. This is crucial because you matter too, and your friendship may be threatened if you ignore taking care of yourself. Lack of self-care can lead to burn-out and resentment. 


I would love to see you at my seminar sometime to tell you more. Perhaps you have a book club, Sunday School, business partners’ meeting, or any group who would benefit from learning these skills.

While I hope to offer my insights in person, I wish you all the best as you love your depressed friend. Just don’t forget that by taking care of yourself you are making a healthy and helpful decision.

Compassionate love learns boundaries.


Comments are always welcome (see tab below).  NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help can be yours.


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