What to say when your friend tells you they’re depressed

In her guest post today, Julie Nicholls from Body Mind Coaching shares with us her experiences of what to say when your friend tell you they’re depressed.

Picture this: you have agreed to meet a long standing friend – you’ve not seen for a couple of months. Over a coffee, the usual chat goes on then your friend says: ‘oh I’m so depressed!’ What do you say?


Well at that point you might be tempted to say something you think will make them feel better. Such platitudes as: ” you’ll be all right it’s – just this horrible weather” or “you’re just having a tough time at the minute”, or “tell me about it…” then proceed to talk about yourself. This is often the way we brush off something we’re not sure how to handle.

If you really care about your friend (and if they’re your friend then I hope you do) and you want and feel strong enough in yourself to help them, then there are some things you can do and say which can make a difference to them and to your relationship with them which hopefully will help them out of what can feel like a dark and lonely place.

Depression can feel like a dark and lonely place 

In the beginning

To start with, the most important thing is probably to say and do nothing. It may seem odd, and you might be tempted to put your arm round them to comfort them, but this pause is really powerful. It shows that you are really listening and taking the time to absorb what they have said, rather than ready with what you want to say or do to make it better. If they then don’t say more of their own accord, ask something like: “is there anything more you want to say about that” then sit and listen.

Listening skills

And when I say listen, I mean really listen.

Many people are resorting to counsellors, coaches and therapists of one type or another because they feel they’re in an environment where they aren’t heard – this doesn’t mean they have no one to talk to, on the contrary sometimes. It might be that everyone is giving their opinion and not giving a chance for your friend to really express what they feel. Of course many therapists are trained to listen, but you don’t have to be a therapist to be able to help, just a friend with the time to listen. A rare commodity these days.

It’s important to find out how long they’ve felt the way they do, as this will determine the severity of the situation is. If it’s is recent it might be that they just need to get things off their chest, which could make them feel a whole lot better. It’s not that they’re actually depressed, they just haven’t felt heard, I mean properly heard, in a long time. They use the term ‘depressed’ because that is what it feels like but, it doesn’t mean they are clinically depressed.

It’s a feeling thing

It’s the way we feel when there’s a sense that we can’t share what is going on and often have conflicting ideas and feelings which we are battling with. It’s a real feeling and no amount of rationalising or ignoring will change it and it whatever is going on has to be faced and acknowledged.

When we don’t know what to do with our feelings (I teach my clients how to express them safely) or have no one to share them with, it can seem easier to put a lid on them and hope they will go away. Unfortunately this doesn’t work and eventually, like a pressure cooker, the valve has to be released to let the steam out or it will blow. I say: “the feeling of being de-pressed is because not enough is ex-pressed”.

So give your friend time to say everything they want to say and be quiet. Don’t interrupt when you think you might have a solution for them – they are not yet ready for that at this stage. And, don’t judge – you don’t know what’s going on and can never fully know as you’ve not had their life.

If having shared everything they want to, they still can’t see the wood for the trees for themselves, the next thing to figure out is can they make changes on their own with you pointing them in the right direction. Or are they in need of additional support. They may not have the energy or motivation to do this on their own – especially if they’ve felt this way for some time.

Ongoing support

If you can commit to it, arrange to meet up regularly – weekly or monthly. Perhaps some sort of rota could

be arranged with mutual friends? It’s important to make sure your friend isn’t getting worse and becoming in need professional help. You’ll be able to suggest some of the following areas they might want to explore and encourage them to let you know how things are going.

Wheel of life chart

When I work with my clients, I always start with a wheel of life chart. This is like a bicycle wheel with all the spokes on it. Each spoke represents just one area of a person’s life. Aspects such as: partner, each child, each parent, the house, work, the environment at work, physical health etc. Each area is then scored on a 0 to 10 scale with, zero being in the centre and ten on the outside rim. Once the chart is complete it becomes much easier to see which area to deal with first. The area with the lowest number if improved will have the greatest effect on the whole chart, i.e, your whole life.

This chart is something you could work on with your friend. It’ll help them become clearer about their situation and why they might feel the way they do and also help you understand your friend better. Over time it will also be a way of noticing improvement. It can be difficult if one improves from a three to a five to realise progress is being made. It is so easy to get disheartened because it’s not feeling like a ten and therefore stop doing the things that are actually helping.

You may notice that all the areas score a three or four. This is quite common in women, especially those with children and a job as they rarely make time to do things just for themselves. The needs of the children and the sense that they often feel solely responsible for the housekeeping, means they put their needs last and feel selfish if they take time out. The ‘to do’ list is longer than ever seems achievable and guilt sets in. Even worse, the inner voice that put us down is louder than the one that praises what we have done well.

Learning to say no!

It’s also very common because women find it harder to refuse requests. Generally we like to please and feel that if we say no to some extra work, helping at a community event, church meeting or school fete we might not be liked or seen as not caring.

In view of this, it’s important for you to help your friend recognise and acknowledge to themselves what they are good at and what they are achieving. What things can they say no to in order to be able to say yes to giving time to activities that benefit themselves. Allowing themselves to have the’ deep-rest’ they deserve.

Keep praising them for any steps they take to improve their situation. Not a British thing, I know, but that’s partly the problem. We’ve been taught to minimise our own successes. Taking time for ourselves is seen as selfish and we forget that if we are not well then everyone around us suffers as a consequence. Not acknowledging ourselves and our achievements can lead us to forgetting them altogether. This is very disheartening and it’s not surprising our spirits become low despite seemingly having everything.

No.1 priority

The priority is for them to take time out and to put themselves on the ‘to do’ list. Help them realise that, without them, the rest of their world falls apart, so making time for self-care is not selfish but crucial.

At first it may be just a monthly thing but building up to once a week. It may be something as simple as having time for a long soak in the bath, going for a swim, to dance or sing whatever works for them to fill up their tank. Is there something they’ve always wanted to do?

Pay attention to, and enquire about the following areas that might be part of the problem. Put it as a question rather than a statement. For example: rather than “I have noticed… ask them “have you noticed… It will help them focus their mind on areas where they may have made some changes without realising and simply going back to what they used to do will help them get better.

Dietary factors

What are they eating? Have it changed their diet recently? Are they now relying on comfort foods, such as refined carbohydrates and sweet things?   It’s vital that they get protein, whole grain carbohydrates and Omega 3 to help their brain function at its best and also avoid the sugar spikes which then lead to a low. Fish and linseed are good sources of Omega 3. If they decide to take capsules then it’s best to choose Omega3 on its own as the western diet already contains more than enough Omega 6. (For more on this see my 6th Jan16 post https://www.facebook.com/BMChealth/)

Feeling SAD

Does your friend spend most of their time indoors; in the car then the office, then at home preparing meals doing homework with the kids? They may be getting a touch of SAD or Seasonal Affective Disorder. Suggest going for a walk round a park at lunch break or sitting outside whenever possible. If they’re not on medication – including the pill, then St John’s wort can help to lift their mood, though they must read more about it and possible contraindications before deciding to use it.

Mr Motivator

Is it lack of motivation, rather than depression? If they don’t feel engaged in their work, they can be bored even if they have too much work and don’t feel they ever get to the end of it. It’s possible that their work is no longer inspiring or challenging anymore so they’re missing a sense of satisfaction and achievement.

Alternatively it might be that there’s been a change in their circumstances that they are having difficulty adjusting to. It’s easy to become stuck in how things used to be rather than embracing the change and seeing the benefits. You can help them find the positives that have come from the change in question.

Mood swings

Have they noticed if it is connected to their monthly cycle? At this time it’s much more likely we’ll feel overwhelmed if there are any ongoing, unresolved issues. Acupuncture or homeopathy can help re-balance the hormones and body making it easier to take the steps needed for long term change. As mentioned earlier self care is really important and having a massage can help re-connect with oneself and ease some of that tension that is building up because of the changes in the hormones.

Unfinished business

A further source of your friend’s woes might be unfinished projects taking longer than expected.  For example a house move, decorating or a work project.  It may be they are not seeing an end to their situation. Help them keep focused on the everyday small steps they have taken or can take to move things forward. Here again it’s about encouraging them to see progress where they can’t.

Often it’s not big radical things that are needed to make a positive change; small steady regular little changes will have a long lasting impact. If you can take time to listen, help and encourage your friend to look after themselves like they would look after their best friend, (the way you are demonstrating – we learn through copying after all) then they will become their own best friend and will have a skill to help them through tough time for the rest of their life.

You can read more self help tips for various health issues and keep up with my talks and workshops on my blog http://body-mind-coaching.blogspot.co.uk/

For a wheel of life chart or an introductory consultation for help with your health issues at no cost to you, over the phone or Skype please contact me: Julie Nicholls 01793495551 julie@body-mind-coaching.co.uk