How to Be There for a Depressed Person

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Who am I? Such a classic existential question, but in the context of my serious musings, I often like to use that as a preface and a sort of throat-clearing: Who am I to give advice? Who am I to offer some sort of insight into an experience? Who am I compared to any number of people surely with better advice and/or insight into their experiences?

Even though that question often gets asked of people in a rather condescending and dismissive way, I think it’s still a fair question to wrestle with, all the same.

The first way I think about, “Who am I?” is that I am a person who believes that if even one person is helped by my musings, or gains some better level of understanding, then that’s a good enough answer to, “Who am I?” The way our brains “click” with something is weird. Sometimes it’s decidedly not the experts, or our closest friends, or family, or whomever else, that help to make that “click” happen. Sometimes it’s a weirdo on a blog.

The second way I think about, “Who am I?” is perhaps more inward focused and one could use the word “selfish.” I blog and muse for my own catharsis, and to paraphrase a quote, to know what I think. I have musings based on my own experiences for which I’ve tried to reflect upon and extrapolate wisdom from, and of course, musings on things I haven’t experienced, but think are probably good opinions to hold, nonetheless (a salient example: war is bad, m’kay).

Now that I’ve done my throat-clearing, today, I attended a virtual theatre play concerning the myths around mental illness. In an interesting twist for the Q&A portion at the end, the performers asked the viewing audience (and those attending in-person) questions about mental health. One of the questions was (from my recollection), “Why don’t we talk about mental health more?”

I can answer the usual way to interpret that question: Stigma, of course. I like to think we’ve seen a great deal of improvement as I muse in the year 2022, with more prominent voices talking about their mental health struggles, but on an inter-personal level, stigma still reigns supreme, I suspect.

But I interpreted the question a different way, and answered as such: Even those who would actually be open to talking with you (I think “with” is a key word here, as opposed to “to” or especially “at”) about mental health — talking with you about depression, anxiety, PTSD, bipolar, whatever the ailment is — often refrain from doing so because they don’t feel equipped to do so. That is, they don’t feel knowledgeable enough to do so and are scared of saying the wrong thing. That it’s better left to the professionals. Or at least a primary care physician.

Here is my wisdom today, stemming from my earlier, “Who am I?”:

Try to not think about it as lacking the requisite knowledge on mental health (and specific disorders) to have a conversation with someone struggling with their mental illness, but think about it as an opportunity to listen and to be there.

In our society and our culture, we struggle with listening because we’re eager to say what we want to say, or we have a social impulse (with good intentions!) to speak our way to helping the person — that if we can configure the right verbal prose, it’ll alleviate the person’s troubles. When sometimes, it’s best to just listen to the person. Because the flipside of feeling the need to talk is that we all also yearn deeply to be heard. Such is the paradox of us as weird social beings.

But even more difficult than trying to listen is trying to be present with someone. To just be there. To sit in the discomfort. To sit in the awkwardness. To sit in the silence even. To not deflect, refer and redirect. That’s hard. That’s the real work, and the real work of both platonic and romantic relationships.

I struggle with it myself, of course. I can talk a good game here (I hope!), but I also find it hard to not want to say something to help the person, especially in our new fangled world, where communication often takes place virtually: How do you sit in the silence there? How do you just “listen” when you’re not literally “listening”?

Those are hard questions I don’t have the answer to, but I want to strip it down to this: For the depressed person, for the suicidal person, for the person suffering from bipolar, knowing that they have a friend when they feel they are at their lowest is everything. You don’t have to be equipped with the requisite knowledge in mental health to be that friend. To be there.

That’s my message to you. The people in my life who were able to “just be” with me, to show in their own way that they cared, they were and are lifesavers. You can be that lifesaver for someone else.

I’m going to go corny, but I just thought of the three L’s here:

  • Lean in (to the discomfort);
  • Listen (to the other person without judgment); and
  • Love them (unconditionally because as irrational as it may seem, we fear that we will be loved less, or at least differently if someone learns of our mental illness).

I hope this helps.

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