Fact sheet 6
Helping a friend with depression or anxiety
Having feelings of depression and anxiety from time to time is part of being human. However, when these feelings seriously affect a person’s day-to-day life, it may mean he or she has depression or an anxiety disorder. If a friend is feeling down for a long period of time, behaving in an unusual way or overwhelmed by their anxiety, it can be hard to know what to do. If you’re worried about someone, LOOK for warning signs, LISTEN without judging, take the time to TALK about what’s going on and SEEK HELP together.
Knowing when help is needed
Everybody feels sad or down sometimes. But depression is more than short-term sadness. It’s a medical condition that can change how someone thinks, feels and behaves and affects his or her enjoyment of life. People experiencing depression may feel hopeless or helpless, lose interest in what they usually enjoy, be angry or irritable, lack energy, experience changes in sleeping or eating, or cry a lot for no reason.
Feeling anxious occasionally is also normal, for example before an exam. But an anxiety disorder is far more intense and can go on for weeks or months. There are many types of anxiety disorders and the symptoms vary. Some people have sudden unexplained panic attacks that can seem out of their control, while others experience phobias like agoraphobia (fear of being in an open space). Many people experience recurrent thoughts that cause them to feel anxious. They often recognise these thoughts as being silly, but having these thoughts can still lead to compulsive behaviour such as needing to check and re-check things, or repeat certain actions (such as washing their hands).
Offering your help
When someone you care about isn’t acting the way they normally do, it can be hard to know what to say. Sometimes the most difficult thing is working out how to start a conversation. It’s important to choose a time when you’re both free to talk and a place where you both feel comfortable. You might want to start by saying something like “I’ve noticed you seem a bit down lately…” and take it from there.
Looking for warning signs
Sometimes it can be difficult to work out if a friend, boyfriend, girlfriend or a family member is just having a rough time or whether something more serious is going on. Here are some examples of warning signs.
- Drops out of the crowd – doesn’t return calls, isn’t keen to go out and doesn’t seem to enjoy things he or she used to love.
- Not sleeping properly – can’t sleep at night and spends a lot of the day in bed with the curtains closed.
- Is out of control – used to be quite sensible but is drinking heavily or using drugs and takes risks, like drinking and driving.
- Feels down – cries a lot for no reason, is negative about everything, and often overreacts to things people say.
- Looks and feels bad – looks a mess. May have lost or gained a lot of weight.
- Has an attitude problem – hardly talks and snaps at you when he or she does.
- Can’t go out because – is afraid to go out of a safety/comfort zone because of overwhelming anxiety.
Once the conversation starts, your job is to listen. Your friend may not want advice, but just want to talk things through. Listen as much as you can, and try to work out how they’re feeling. You can help your friend by maintaining eye contact, sitting in a relaxed position and asking open-ended questions that can’t be answered with just ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Save your suggestions or advice for later but let him or her know you’re there for them.
Sometimes when people are feeling down, they find it hard to talk about their thoughts and feelings and even get angry. If this happens, stay calm, be fair, respect their limits, admit you’re wrong if you are, and don’t get angry yourself.
It may be that they don’t want to talk about it at that time, so don’t take it personally. You could offer to meet another time or let them know they can always get in touch if they need to talk. Making the time to be with them can be a good way to show that you care and might also help you to understand their thoughts and feelings.
Seeking help together
If you think someone may be experiencing depression or an anxiety disorder, encourage him or her to seek help, for example from a counsellor or doctor. The person may not have the energy to get the help they need themselves, which is where you come in. You might also offer to go with them if they do decide to speak to someone about how they’re feeling. If they don’t feel comfortable with the first health professional they see, you could help them to find another – the main thing is that they don’t give up on getting help.
There are many services available to young people. Youthbeyondblue Fact sheet 3, Getting help for depression or anxiety explains how to use these services. Other contact points are given below.
Young people who have depression or an anxiety disorder may be at risk of suicide, and if so, they need urgent help. Consult a doctor, the emergency department of your local hospital or a mental health professional (like a psychologist or psychiatrist).
Taking care of yourself
Sometimes, when you’re worried about someone, it feels like you’re all alone. It’s important that you take care of yourself as well. Try to take time out to relax and enjoy things, like sport, friends, music or going for a walk to keep yourself feeling okay. You may also want to speak to someone you trust, such as a family member, friend or counsellor.
Key points to remember
- Although your first reaction may be to tell someone who is down to ‘cheer up’, because everything will be fine, this may come across as you not taking them seriously and can make things worse.
- Finding out more about depression and anxiety might help you to better understand what your friend might be going through and the reasons for his or her reactions to you.
- Even though you can offer support, you are not responsible for your friend’s actions or behaviours. If they aren’t willing to help themselves it’s not your fault.
- It might take time for your friend to accept help, either from you or someone else. It might also take some time to find a treatment that works best for them.
- If your friend doesn’t want to talk to you about their problems, try not to take it personally. Sometimes it’s easier to talk to someone you don’t know about what’s troubling you.
This fact sheet is based on information from: