Part one – for the caring friend.
“You just don’t understand me!”
It’s the clichéd cry of the whiny teenager but when it comes to depression, sadly, it’s often true.
I started this blog as a way to help not only depression sufferers, but also those who care about them and who have trouble understanding what they’re going through. Reading this, and talking honestly to others about depression, can greatly increase your understanding of what sufferers are coping with, but sometimes even that isn’t enough. And that doesn’t just go for people who are neuro-typical. People who suffer from different types of depression (or other mental illnesses, or other “invisible diseases”) can often have trouble understanding what each other are going through. I once showed my description of what depression felt like to another depression sufferer, and he replied with “It just goes to show that we don’t suffer from the same thing after all. That’s not at all how depression feels to me”.
All of this is my way of saying: “Sometimes you won’t understand what your friend is going through.”
So, if you can’t understand what they’re going through, what hope is there of you helping?
The answer is: LOTS!
The first step of helping someone when you can’t understand what they’re going through is not to claim that you know what they’re going through. By all means try some comparisons or indications of understanding if you think you’re close to getting it, but if you just can’t figure it out, or if you’ve tried a few times and been met every time with “No, that’s not it” then admit to not understanding. Often a comment of “I can’t even begin to comprehend what you’re going through” is hugely helpful, as it can remind them that they’re not just failing to deal with something that everyone else can do easily. Even if that comment doesn’t help, however, it won’t make things worse. At the very least it will prevent complications later when they think you’ve understood but you actually haven’t a clue.
Second step is to realise that just because you don’t know what they’re going through doesn’t mean you can’t help. Explain to them that you want to help, but that you need them to tell you how.
IMPORTANT: If you say that you want to help, you have to be willing to help. If you offer to help and they say that staying clear of them and giving them space is the most helpful thing to do then DO IT! Don’t allow yourself to be overcome with pity for them and try to give them a hug! If you don’t understand why they want you to do something like that then remind yourself that you don’t understand what’s bothering them in the first place. (Note that this doesn’t include unreasonable requests. I’m not saying that if you offer to help and they say they need all your money you have to go through with that, just that you shouldn’t refuse help within reason only because it doesn’t make sense to you.)
The third point is to realise that although you may really want to understand how they’re feeling or what they’re going through, trying to explain it repeatedly can be stressful to them. Asking once is important and good, asking for the fourteenth time might be a bit much.
On the flip side of the third point, it can be helpful if you’re willing to listen to repeated attempts at explaining just in case they feel it will help them to understand it better themselves, or that it will help them to explain it better to others. If you are willing to do this then let them know… they’re unlikely to ask you themselves.
Finally, you don’t just have to go by what one particular person is saying. If your friend/relative/workmate is having trouble getting across what they are suffering from then feel free to do research elsewhere. Look up information about depression, about other mental illnesses, about “invisible diseases” like lupus, fibromyalgia, ME, and many more. Even if it isn’t exactly what you need to know in this case, you never know when it will come in useful in the future. Knowing and understanding the problems that other people face can never be a bad thing!