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Young Adults’ Experiences of Depression in the U.S.

Messages to family and friends: how to support a person with depression

People want to alleviate the pain of a son, daughter or a friend who is suffering with depression. But it is not easy! Too often their well-meaning efforts can make things worse. In this section, the young adults we interviewed share insights about helpful—and not helpful—ways to interact with a person with depression. 

Helpful ways to support a person with depression

Almost everyone we talked to said having a supportive friend or family member is “invaluable.” Some acknowledge that knowing what kind for support works in any given situation “depends on the person.” But everyone said that genuine support includes “compassion,” “respect,” and being there “through my worst.”

Many people said they value support more than understanding. As Shayne put it, “Being supportive is not even the willingness to understand, it’s the willingness to never understand and to still be there.”
 

Mara appreciates that people give her support even—and perhaps especially -- because they cannot understand what she is feeling.

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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I had some really good friends and some people I could rely on really well who were always there to say, like I understand or not necessarily that they understood, but what they could say to me was , “I may not know exactly what you are feeling, but I want you to know objectively, here’s what’s going on. Objectively, you are a worthwhile person. Objectively, people care about you. And whatever subjective feelings you are having right now, just know that those are totally not valid, that’s not reality.” So I think, yeah, it was just a mix of those two things, just valuing myself and knowing I was valued by other people. Which can be really hard, I think, because if I hadn’t had that group of friends at that time, I think it would have been a lot more difficult to recognize. 

My dad has always been like, my number one advocate so it was really nice just having a lot of support from him and just having support from him as somebody who was willing to say, “I have no idea what, where this is coming from, I have no background in this I can’t comprehend it, but I really want to be here to support you through whatever you’re going through.” So that was invaluable to me. 
 

Shayne says she doesn’t want someone else to understand what she is going through; she just needs support.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 13
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I mean like, in all honesty, I don’t want someone to understand because that sucks to know what that feels like. I just want them to be supportive, which is different than understanding. Being supportive is not even the willingness to understand, it’s the willingness to never understand and to still be there. 

But to have someone who can be there and say, I know what you’re going through is ok and even if I don’t understand the pain that you’re feeling, just know that I’m here for you anyways to recognize that you are going through something and that I’m going to be supportive by being here with you. Unless you want me to go sit over in the other room, then I’ll go sit over in the other room and you can be over here by yourself and I’ll be supportive from you wherever you want me to be supportive from basically. Because sometimes you want to be alone, you’re like, “No I need to cry for ten minutes in my room. Leave me alone.” You know, or you know, sometimes you want them to sit with you while when you cry. It just varies, it depends. You know, it’s how your feeling which can be so many different things and all the things all at once. So it can be overwhelming in so many ways.
Other people we interviewed said they appreciate “someone who understands,” and “does not judge.”
 

Ryan says it’s essential to have someone who can support without judging.

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Age at interview: 19
Sex: Male
Age at diagnosis: 13
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Well I don’t think you can do it solely by yourself, I think you need somebody who actually can support you and not just judge you basically to say like, “you’re normal, you’re okay”. You know because when you feel like this, you feel like nobody has felt like this. No one could possibly be as low as feel right now. So somebody who understands, maybe somebody who’s been there and then coping mechanism, a healthy one, you know, like an outlet you know? Whether that’s talking to somebody, whether that’s exercise, whatever. I think there’s positive ways to deal with this… 
 
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Natasha finds comfort in friends who understand without judging, and who provide opportunities for low stress socializing.

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Age at interview: 20
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 19
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It’s been good. It’s been really good. A lot of them are like people I can like talk to about my mental illnesses, which is nice because then they like understand what’s happening like if I don’t talk to them for like a week or two or if I like haven’t been out. They’re not like, they’re not judgey and angry about it, they understand….

Yeah one of my friends, we like, we’re the same age and we do a lot of the same projects together and so whenever we have projects or whenever I’m feeling like not super great I can like go to her apartment and hang out and it’s like low stress, low anxiety and it sort of gets me feeling a lot better. And we do this thing, it’s probably not healthy but we will like camp out in the… building you were at, like we did that last quarter for maybe two days during finals week. We were like hanging out in there watching movies and doing work and that was a lot of fun so, sort of, having a place to go and people to go to.
Some people said simple acts “like holding my hand” by a loving intimate partner provide encouragement.
 

Elizabeth says her husband coaches but does not enable her.

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Age at interview: 28
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 17
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I wouldn’t have married him if he wasn’t like this, but he’s just always really been there to hold my hand and support me without doing something for me and I think that’s what I really needed in a relationship. Someone to be supportive and loving and be kind of a coach in some ways to remind me, but not enabling in any kind of way. 
 

An outside perspective helps Violet escape spirals of negative thought.

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Age at interview: 23
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 22
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I mean I know that not everybody can have a partner at the time when they need it you know it doesn’t just happen that way but to have anybody, a friend, a parent, anybody that can just remind you to just take a deep breath you know “give yourself a break cut yourself some slack,” I think that’s been one, a very big thing in helping me realize, ok just let me just take a step back here and before I get myself all worked up before I’m beating myself up, let me just remember that you know everybody has made a mistake at some point.
Unhelpful ways to support a person with depression

Several people said that they understand that their friends and family mean well, but too often their attempts to help were not helpful. 

A lot of those interviewed said it was not helpful when people say things such as, “I totally get where you are coming from.” 
 

Mara cautions that her “story sounds familiar”, but “chances are you have no idea what I am feeling.”

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Age at interview: 18
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Yes, yeah, yeah that, that’s totally a common theme there, because I think in some ways I’ve always sort of felt, like you know, you’ll, you’ll be revealing something to a friend that you think is kind of getting closer and you disclose something and they go, “Oh, I totally get where you’re coming from.” And on the one hand it’s easy to see how they are trying to be supportive and trying to be there for you but on the other hand you want to go no you have no idea what I’m going through you, you live a completely different life and even though you think the story sounds familiar, chances are you have no idea what I am feeling. So I think, yeah it was just nice having people around me who could just say not necessarily that they thought they knew everything I was going through and that they knew all about me, but that they could say, “My experience is different than yours, but here I am, I want to help you I want to be emotionally present for you.” 
A number of people find advice unhelpful. As Whitney put it, “When they start offering too much advice I shut down. … Nobody wants to be told what to do”.
 

Shayne describes as “presumptuous” her friend’s advice on how to heal her depression.

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Age at interview: 27
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 13
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And then I had a friend tell me, you know [name] what you really need to do is just go on a climbing trip. And I’m like, first off, spending eight hours in the car with my self sounds awful, you know, like that sounds like a nightmare to me, so I don’t need to go on a climbing trip. I want, you know, my therapy program and my medication. That’s the treatment I need. I don’t need to go on a climbing trip. So, it’s like, you know, she’s just trying to be helpful, like trying to cheer me up. 
 
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Whitney reminds people who give advice that they are not a therapist.

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Age at interview: 29
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 9
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Don’t tell a person, you have this, this is your problem, this is why you’re having that problem, quite frankly you’re not a therapist. …

You don’t, you’re not a psychiatrist, you can’t diagnose a person like that.
 Showing anger and frustration, even though understandable, is not helpful. As Elizabeth put it, “When someone tries so hard to help you and it’s not successful, sometimes that produces anger.” She says for her, this situation just “produces more worry”.
 

Sophie suggests it’s better for a support person to walk away when they get frustrated than to yell.

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Age at interview: 21
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 14
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Yelling at someone is never helpful [laughter]. I there was some instances where my family was frustrated with me and maybe they would and I understood why they did it, they were frustrated, so they would just sort of blow up and that’s not the best thing to do. 

Blaming the person that is feeling depressed is never really the best thing either. Like don’t tell them this is your fault you’re doing this to yourself that’s not a good thing to do that was hard.

Maybe sometimes the best thing to do is just if you’re trying to help someone but you just can’t just walk away for a bit or direct them towards something that can help, just don’t blow up on them.

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