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4 Steps to Talking to a Friend About Depression

If someone close to you is struggling with mental health, it’s helpful to understand your own emotions first. Anxiety, pain, depression, and chronic stress are felt experiences. The more viscerally aware you are of what’s going within your body, the more emotionally fit you become and the more empathetic you can be to someone else.

understand depression isn’t all in the head

Emotion is fundamental to every level of higher functioning you can imagine. Symptoms of depression include feeling sad and confused, having body aches and fatigue, experiencing mental and sexual dysfunction, crying, and irritability. In other words, it’s a thing that wraps up your entire body. Knowing this, we’re working toward more effective treatments for depression.

“[D]epression doesn’t only happen in your head — depression happens throughout your entire body. There are biological changes in many of your organ systems. Evidence from other fields of medicine have pointed to an intimate connection between our mind and our body,” says award winning neuroscientist Dr. Scott Russo, Associate Professor of Neuroscience and Director of the Center for Affective Neuroscience at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

help others with your own self-compassion

Early intervention, talk therapy, and embracing emotional health needs with compassion is key for healing. However, stigma about addressing “feelings and emotion” start early. If you think about it, we aren’t taught how to communicate effectively. We’re rarely shown how to articulate and express our feelings and experiences in a dialogue with a focus on understanding.

We’re taught that winning the argument is what’s important, not recognizing the other person and trying to see their side of the story. This makes us hard on ourselves and others. It’s a difficult pattern to break.

Science shows that when you’re low in self-compassion, there’s the potential to respond to stress in self-critical, self-isolating ways, which trigger an avalanche of internal negativity. According to a study on interventions for mood disorders and anxiety by clinical psychologist and compassion researcher Amy Louise Finlay-Jones, practicing kindness and compassion are meaningful ways to reduce distress and promote happiness.

4 steps to talking with a friend about depression

Step 1: Establish safety. We spoke with Dr. Stefan G. Hofmann, a professor in the Psychological and Brain Sciences clinical program at Boston University who tells us,“The very first step is to convey that it is a safe place to share their feelings with you.”

Provide the opportunity for your friend to open up and honestly share their feelings without risk of being judged. You can say, “I’m here to talk with you because I care about you.” Choose a private moment, like when you’re having coffee or on a peaceful walk together.

Step 2: Be as open as possible. Refrain from directing the discussion to a specific outcome. Dr. Hofmann suggests you try saying, “Tell me about what’s going on. What’s happening in your life?” He explains that “It is not advisable to self-disclose at the beginning – when you compare your experiences to theirs, you are diminishing the problem.”

Step 3: Understand their inner world with empathy and kindness. “This allows the person to let their guard down. Great stigma is associated with mental health and depression.

Questions to ask include ‘Do you feel very down for most of the day?’ Other examples could include asking if they’re having sleeping or eating problems, discomfort in social environments, or if their energy is low.”

This helps to open the dialogue and tap into what they may be experiencing.

Step 4: Listen reflectively. “Questions you can ask in reflection as they share information include, ‘What does ____ feel like?’ ‘It sounds like you have a lot of stress right now,’ or ‘It seems like you feel a lot of guilt.’”

Reflective listening is a very powerful tool. You’re repeating what they tell you back to them. It establishes trust and understanding.

Dr. Hofmann says, “Be very careful of asking random critical questions about suicidal thoughts or plans. If you think they need more help than you can give, guide them to seek professional care. If suicide is an imminent threat to your friend, advise them to call 911 to receive immediate care. If they say no, while it is not mandated, there are laws that state you need to do something.”

When you open up mindfully and listen reflectively, your world and your relationships will begin to flourish. Be the friend you wish to see in the world.