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The support you provide someone who is suffering from depression is invaluable. No one person, however, can provide a ‘cure’; it is important to realise that the most positive way to contribute to someone else’s wellbeing is to look after your own. Sometimes, being the confidant or support base for someone suffering from depression, an illness you may not understand (or understand too well), becomes overwhelming. To feel out of your depth is in no way to fail as a friend, and there is a point where it can become necessary to step back and seek external help. In all circumstances, looking after yourself is the ultimate form of support you can offer.
I sat down to chat with Gerard Hoffman, Manager of the Counselling Services at Student Health, and Rachel Riedel, a Wellbeing Educator, about depression myths, ‘courageous conversations’ and empathy. They described seeing many students worried about struggling friends who get into ‘binds’ about how to help them. Often, people are paralysed by a natural desire to remain confidential out of respect for the friendship, yet do not have the experience or expertise to deal with the situation. The very act of confiding in someone presumes the information will remain private, which of course it should be. It is also far from an easy confession, with the stigma of depression being a failure of positive attitude or character. However, as Gerard points out, and my personal history has proven, the belief that it is not your place to ask for external help can be highly detrimental and even very dangerous.
The detail can be terrifying. Information you never want someone you immensely care about to carry around with them or have to reveal to you. Gerard recommends that as soon as you start to worry about the friend beyond the time you spend with them, then seek external help. That doesn’t mean chatting to a mutual friend over a coffee about how to ‘deal’ with someone, but to take advantage of Student Health beyond needing validation of your below-average cold. Using the counselling services they provide doesn’t need to be premised upon an issue you are experiencing yourself, but can entirely be to seek guidance on how to help someone else. The beauty of taking this step is also that, the professionals assure me, any information revealed remains entirely anonymous, and the wishes of the other person will also be respected at all times. As almost mature and responsible adults, it is trusted that we students can make informed decisions… once we have the requisite information to do so.
When in a supportive relationship with someone who is depressed, whether in a spooning-at-night sense or being that person who listens, it becomes very difficult to distance yourself. It is also somewhat inevitable to take reactions to efforts to help extremely personally. When trying to have a ‘courageous conversation’ in order to work out what’s going on or how to help, the reaction may be hurtful or an outright rejection. Rachel points out that it’s important to remember that depression is an unhealthy state of mind with an inability to think rationally. These conversations are never easy, and when someone else’s self-esteem is failing them, an awareness for other people’s often slips. If I had known that the insipid comments were simply a reflection of some much deeper insecurity, my own self-confidence would have survived, making me better at alleviating the broader problem. I needed a space to hear an objective opinion.
The reality is that we are young students, not trained counsellors, and depression is a serious condition which is impossible to ‘snap’ out of. The professionals are skilled at providing clarity. If you have never experienced depression yourself, it can be a very difficult thing to comprehend when it manifests itself in someone close to you, so having a grasp of what are appropriate choices of language or approaches is transformative. Using words like ‘mentally unwell’ or ‘depression’ to the person, for example, are poisonous. Instead, attempt a more neutral approach with phrases such as ‘Are you okay?’ or ‘You don’t seem to have been yourself recently’. Even if the response is negative, the hint that something seems wrong will trigger a reflective thought-process for that person. BUT, as Gerard points out, human beings just don’t attract simple answers, especially when shrouded by depression, so try not to expect a clear-cut solution.
Hindsight is a twisted thing. With hindsight, I should have told someone the things my friend was telling me. But with hindsight, I also wouldn’t have withdrawn so abruptly from the friendship as a knee-jerk reaction to realising it was pulling me down. Care and empathy does not need to be mistaken as powerlessness or a sense of total responsibility. It is not selfish to step back out of a need to take care of yourself, and in the long term, it is the right decision. Just being there, to listen and empathise, is more important than you could probably ever know.