Depression is extraordinarily prevalent; major depressive disorder affects more than 16 million American adults and persistent depressive disorder affects more than three million. But there’s long been a social stigma around depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and other types of mental illness. The result? More than half of young people say they rarely—if ever—talk about these topics.
And while the deaths of two high-profile people—Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade—last month brought the need for conversation into sharper relief, many of us still don’t have the appropriate tools to start talking. We don’t always know what to say—and what not to say—if we want to help. Or what we can and should ask, without seeming like we are pushing too hard.
So, we asked exactly those questions of an expert. Ahead, Dr. Joy Harden Bradford, an Atlanta-based psychologist and founder of the online resource Therapy for Black Girls, explains how we can start talking to each other—and what we should be careful *not* to do when trying to help a friend dealing with depression.
Don’t minimize their feelings.
This one might sound obvious, but it bears repeating: When your friend is talking about their depression, be careful not to minimize or invalidate their feelings.
Remember, you’re not qualified to judge how things do or should feel inside their brain. Depression is a complex illness, with both chemical and situational components. (Andrew Solomon’s book Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression provides a master class in understanding.) Saying things like “Snap out of it,” “You just got promoted; what do you have to be depressed about?” or “It’s not that big a deal” are surefire ways to make your friend feel worse.
A better tactic? Dr. Joy suggests actively listening and then saying something affirming like, “Wow, that sounds like a lot. It sounds like you’re really struggling with that.” You don’t have to say anything super groundbreaking. Just listen—and be kind and loving.
Don’t put pressure on yourself to have all the answers.
Say you’re sitting with a friend who’s in distress and you feel stuck because you don’t know how to fix the problem. That’s totally fine; don’t beat yourself up.
“If you’re not a trained mental health professional, there isn’t anything you’re necessarily going to be able to do. This is where a lot of people get hung up—on the idea that you have to do something to make it better,” says Dr. Joy. “All you’re really trying to do is offer support in the moment and get your friend to connect with the right resources and somebody who may be able to help.”
After listening and gently affirming your friend, Dr. Joy suggests asking them a few questions like:
- Have you been able to talk to anybody else about this?
- Do you have a therapist?
- Would you like me to help you find somebody that you could talk to more about this?
- Would you like me to go to the appointment with you?
Sometimes when you’re dealing with depression, logistics can be a bear. Your friend might want to make an appointment, but feel unable to deal with all the health insurance, scheduling, and bureaucratic hassles. Getting a sense of their availability and setting the appointment up for them could be very helpful (if they give you the go-ahead to do so).
If your friend is on a budget, consider making use of these affordable mental health resources.
Don’t wait for your friend to tell you what they need.
While sending texts, making calls, and speaking IRL is a good start, you may also need to—*on a case by case basis*—evaluate whether you should take a more active approach.
“We tell people: ‘Call me if you need anything.’ But sometimes your friend might be so depressed that they don’t have the energy or forethought to even know what they need. So it’s also important to take the initiative and anticipate that,” Dr. Joy says.
“Coming over with a casserole or swinging by and washing a load of clothes—kind of like people do for new parents or those grieving over a recent loss—can be helpful for someone who’s depressed,” she continues. “You do have to be careful about how close that relationship is. You don’t want to take the chance of invading someone’s space, but, under the right circumstances, a gesture like that can be really kind.”
Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone closer.
It’s possible that you’re spending enough time with your friend to see warning signs that they’re dealing with depression, but you don’t feel close enough to make an uninvited gesture. In this case, Dr. Joy says, “It’s perfectly OK to mention to somebody who is closer to them, ‘Hey, I’ve noticed this with X,’ or ‘Maybe you should check on X,’ or ‘Is there something we could do to get her out of the house more?’” Extending the relationship beyond its natural boundaries out of concern can feel weird for both of you; don’t be afraid to bring in so someone who’s closer to them.
Don’t talk to their boss or manager.
“You definitely should not report anything to a boss, manager, or H.R.,” says Dr. Joy. Whether or not to share mental health information at work is your friend’s personal decision and making it for them could make things much worse in the long run, especially if they work in an unsupportive environment. If they do decide they want to talk about it at work, here’s a good primer on how to start that might be worth sharing.
Don’t be afraid to ask if they are suicidal.
Contrary to popular belief, asking someone if they are suicidal does not increase the risk of suicide. Frances Gonzales, the director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, recommends reviewing the lifeline’s five action steps for communicating with someone who may be at risk of suicide. Each of these recommendations is bolstered by serious academic research. The Mighty, an online mental health magazine, is also a great resource. If you educate yourself in advance, you’ll feel prepared to have the conversation.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health assistance, visitMentalHealth.govorMental Health Resourcesfor access to tools and information that may help.If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or just want to talk to someone, text theCrisis Text Lineat 741-741 or call theNational Suicide Prevention Lifelineat 1-800-273-8255.For international resources, this listorMental Health Resourcesfor access to tools and information that may help.If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, or just want to talk to someone, text theCrisis Text Lineat 741-741 or call theNational Suicide Prevention Lifelineat 1-800-273-8255.For international resources, this listis a good place to start.