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How To Support Your Depressed Friend When You’re Depressed Too

Even in the lowest stages of my depression, I still fret about how my friends are doing.

by Annie Burdick
August 10, 2021 | Love
helping a friend. rewire pbs love support depressed friend
Credit: Valery // Adobe

I am depressed. And though that's possibly an uncomfortably blunt way to start, it seems best to offer that admission.

What was diagnosed a few years ago as mild depression — a thing I frankly coped with quite well and was dwarfed by my other diagnosis, severe anxiety disorder — has morphed and spiraled over the past year-plus into something that's nearly unrecognizable from the depression I experienced for so long before. 

Mental health, in its nature, ebbs and flows, is cyclical and fluctuating. I'd always known this, but perhaps I thought I'd gotten hit as hard as I could already.

Because of the circumstances of the past year and a half, finding myself isolated at home in a city I'd moved to only a few months before the pandemic hit, a people-person with no friends within thousands of miles, issues and anxieties piling up in an untidy pile in my brain, I realized quickly how hard depression could demolish me. 

And how firmly it could take hold when so many of the things I valued most in life were put on a long-term hiatus with no revival date. 

Only very recently have I felt any inkling of my "old self" returning.

My situation is far from unique. The vast majority of my friends are experiencing renewed depression, worsened conditions or brand new encounters with mental illness.

The result of unbreachable distance and, in many cases, simultaneous mental health issues, has led me to have more than a few of what I now think of as "mutually-depressed friendships" — though sometimes this also involves anxiety or other mental illnesses at play, too.

Empath and worrier that I am, even in the lowest phases of my depression, I still fret about how my friends are doing, and the strains I've felt on some of our relationships. 

I, like many I imagine, have searched "how to support depressed friends" and realized, while there are endless valid and well-meaning articles out there covering this, all of them seem to be designed for the friend who is in an emotionally solid place and ready to be someone's supporter. 

Guidance like checking in regularly, making loose plans, helping your friends with bits of daily life and supporting them with finding professional help are all good in theory. But the idea of tackling any of those things to someone handling their own mental illness is... overwhelming. 

Am I a bad friend if I can't do these things? And will I lose all my friendships if we're both too depressed to stay close?

What happens in mutually-depressed friendships?

In an attempt to get some guidance and clarity on how to handle these recurring experiences, I talked to two psychologists. First thing's first: breaking down the pitfalls and roadblocks of these relationships. 

"When two people in any kind of relationship are in crisis or distress, the biggest obstacle is that it becomes hard to support each other," said Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an author and psychologist.

If this feels relatable, you probably understand my concept of mutually-depressed friendships. 

helping friend. rewire pbs love depressed friend
The vast majority of my friends are experiencing renewed depression, worsened conditions or brand new encounters with mental illness.  |  Credit: Valery // Adobe

However, she said this can go a couple of ways. 

"For some people, this experience gives the opportunity to lean on each other." 

For example, you might find healthy ways to heal as a pair, going walking or trying yoga together. Many others experience the opposite. 

"Two friends who are both in mental health treatment can enter into some problematic relationship dynamics that can undermine their recovery," said Haley Neidich, a psychotherapist. 

"Codependency is a dynamic that frequently presents itself, [or] one friend may pick up the habits or negative behavior of the other." 

I've personally experienced an increase in miscommunications and strained conversations too, with both parties more prone to hurt feelings, irritability or brashness. Other times, it's a distinct feeling of drifting apart. 

Ultimately, it is possible to be a good part of someone's life when you're both dealing with depression. Even if the friendship looks different for a while, or forever, you don't have to lose it altogether. 

Create boundaries

Neidich and Capanna-Hodge both emphasized the critical — and often daunting — importance of boundaries. 

 Though many of us struggle to put in place and maintain them, boundaries are actually the foundation of a friendship that can outlast challenges. But some boundaries are healthy, and some are toxic. 

"Healthy boundaries value our individual needs above the needs of others, not in a selfish manner, but in a way that is ultimately the most loving and true to our needs," Neidich said. 

"Healthy boundaries look like saying no, allowing yourself to cancel plans, releasing toxic relationships, not taking on too much emotional labor and putting your own mental health above the demands from others." 

Neidich cautions that unhealthy boundaries include never being able to say no and doing more than you're comfortable with. Routines like these "can lead to codependency and enmeshment," she said.

Talking boundaries with a friend, especially in one of these mutually-depressed relationships, can feel daunting. You may worry you're going to hurt their feelings or feel like you're shutting them down. 

Neidich recommends having a direct and straightforward conversation before issues start popping up. 

With someone you're close to, saying things like, "these are my needs today, what are yours?" or "how can I support you this week?" will get you started on a path to healthy boundaries. 

From there, the critical thing is to respect your friend's needs, even if they ask for space for the week, or less communication while they deal with feelings.

Be direct

Oftentimes, beating around the bush and being overly cautious when you talk to your friend will just lead to increases in miscommunication, or give them the impression that you're holding something back or not feeling comfortable around them. Open and honest communication works better. 

Off the bat, Capanna-Hodge recommends, "the first thing to happen should be to clearly state 'I'm having a hard time.'" 

You don't have to specifically say 'I'm depressed.' But if your friend doesn't know you're dealing with mental health issues, it's best to let them know.  

Then give yourself the same grace you give them and want them to give you.

Neidich recommends broaching any conversation in a direct way that respects the other person's boundaries. Don't dive into your heaviest topics with no warning. 

Say something like, "I know this is a lot and I'd love to talk about it, but is this a good time for you?" and then respect their answer. Your friend won't always be ready for hard conversations, just like you won't. 

Be gentle with yourself

Ultimately, it's not one thing that will help you support a friend and yourself through mental health obstacles. It's likely a host of efforts, plenty of time and a lot of grace. 

Put bumpers up to stop friction from entering conversations. If you feel things getting tense and heated, take a step away. 

Invite your depressed friend into your healing. If you started going on a daily walk for your mental health, or took up an artistic hobby, ask them to do it with you.

If one or both of you is clinically depressed, seek mental health treatment and counseling. While all of the previous  advice can help keep a friendship intact, when things are tough enough, nothing truly substitutes professional help. 

Most importantly, seek specific solutions in therapy, rather than simply talking about problems. 

"Bringing up things, situations and people in your life that are exacerbating or worsened and asking for concrete tools on how to manage those pieces is one of the best ways to maximize therapy," Capanna-Hodge said.

The truth is, the past year and a half has changed many of us in fundamental ways. Not only are we often deeper in depressions and mental health challenges, but our lives, needs and relationships may have changed at their core. 

You may assess a friendship and realize that it no longer serves you, and in fact hampers your ability to heal. Though it's one of the harder things to do, give yourself the space and love to let go of relationships if they're no longer right for your life. 

But, when a friendship brings goodness to your life, hold onto it. Support them in small ways and give yourself the space and time to heal — together or apart — so you can continue being there for each other, whatever that looks like, in the future.

Annie Burdick
Annie Burdick is a writer and editor living in Oregon. She has two nonfiction books coming in 2021.
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