How to Help Others With Depression

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Reader’s Question

I made friends with this girl freshman year; I knew she was a little odd, but we really hit it off. She has depression and is on medications, but she is really self-destructive. I know she engages in self-harm and binge drinking. This is getting to be more than I can handle. She tried to kill herself earlier in the semester and she was taken to the hospital. My grades are suffering because I have to take several hours out of every day just to comfort her or make sure she doesn’t severely hurt herself. How can I support her while looking after myself?

Psychologist’s Reply

Depression can be a disorder that impacts not only the person experiencing it, but also those who care for them. Often when a loved one, close friend or family member struggles with depression, we can feel responsible for them and want to help in any way possible. One of the things we can forget when taking care of someone else is ourselves. There is nothing wrong with caretaking. However, I think it is important to remember that we cannot take care of others without first taking care of ourselves. Next time you are on a plane, remember this. During the preflight safety briefing, the flight attendant informs parents that in the event of an emergency loss of cabin pressure, the oxygen masks will drop. They will say to calmly position your own mask before putting one on those around you. This is a great example of the fact that you can’t help those around you if you lose consciousness and pass out. Good, realistic, self-care is a vital part of helping others. In a strange way, you can make it tougher to help others if you aren’t a bit selfish. Here are some basic rules of thumb for helping others:

Share the health.
By this I mean don’t stop doing those things you need to do to stay happy and healthy. Maintain your routine, keep eating, keep exercising, keep your schedule. A way to help your friend is to invite her along with you, when appropriate, on some of these healthy outings. What is good for you can also be healthy for her. Go eat together, work out at the same gym, do things you enjoy doing.
Know your limits.
Helping and fixing are very different things. Know that you cannot fix her. Understand that she, and she alone, truly controls the outcome of her situation. You cannot stop her from feeling depressed, nor can you stop her from harming herself. If she becomes suicidal or self-injurious, you can help by contacting those who need to know — parents, teachers, university RAs, police or someone in charge, who can help find her the treatment she needs. This also means knowing when you are in over your head. Often I tell others that when someone they care about is in danger of seriously hurting themselves, call the police, even at the risk of losing the friendship. It’s worth it. Support and encouragement are about the best we can do. Often we can wind up feeling guilty and making ourselves responsible for the actions of others. Be careful not to fall into that trap of irrational beliefs.
Share the load.
Anyone in a position of helping a friend needs to set very clear limits with your friend (and even yourself) on what you can do and what you can’t do. It is often useful to help those with depression find the resources they need in addition to just yourself. You can help her look up depression support groups; find a therapist, psychiatrist, or pastor; talk to her family and friends about sharing the load. Often those with depression need more than what one or two people can provide. That’s not a failure in care on your part, that’s just what is needed in these situations.

Remember when caring for others to slow down, relax, get some perspective on what you can and can’t do. Don’t allow guilt to drive what you do for your friends. Guilt leads to burn out and then you’re no help to anyone, including yourself.

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