If it feels like we’re living in an especially fragile moment for our collective mental health right now, that’s because we are: The mental health consequences of the pandemic and the accompanying sense of isolation and economic hardship have exacerbated an already pretty bleak portrait of mental health in the U.S. According to a survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control in June of 2020, 40% of adults in the US reported struggling with mental or behavioral health—a significant increase compared with 2019.
That’s building on the most recent statistics from the National Institute of Health, which found that 7.1% of adults in the United States—that’s 17.3 million people—had at least one major depression episode in 2017. That number is even higher among women, at 8.7% versus 5.3% of men, and higher still for those who identify as more than one race, at 11.3%. And young people are affected by it more than any other group, with 13.1% of individuals between the ages of 18 and 25 experiencing major depressive episodes.
Even when we find that we personally feel relatively healthy, when a loved one or friend is experiencing mental health challenges, understanding what to look for is key to understanding how you can help.
What to look for
Licensed marriage and family therapist and founder of Take Root Therapy Saba Harouni notes that symptoms of depression look different for different people, but that some indicators may include withdrawing from plans, sleeping more or less than usual, changes in appetite that result in sudden weight gain or loss, talking about death or dying, reporting feelings of hopelessness, and seeming physically slow or lethargic.
Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist Joanna Lovinger adds that discussions about dying are especially a cause for concern: “If your friend is talking about feeling hopeless or seems fixated with death and dying, he or she needs an immediate referral to a mental health professional, ideally one who will devise a safety plan for suicide prevention.”
We spoke with Harouni and Lovinger about ways you can help and support a friend dealing with a depressive episode if you notice any of the above symptoms.
What you can do
The first and simplest place to start is to simply check in with your friend. “A quick, ‘Hey, I'm thinking of you,’ can be a helpful reminder that there is life outside of their depression, and that there are still people who care about them,” says Harouni. “While they may not respond right away—or at all—it's nice to have someone to turn to when the depression loosens its grip.”
Show up and listen
One of the most helpful things you can do is to simply be on the receiving end of your friend’s thoughts if and when they are ready to discuss them. It’s OK to keep your response minimal, just confirming that you’re listening and taking them seriously. “By simply giving your friend space to feel what they’re feeling and a shoulder to lean on you’re letting them know that you’ll be there no matter what they’re going through,” says Harouni.
When they’re finished speaking, Lovinger suggests that your response can be something as simple as, “That really sucks. I’m so sorry.”
Resist the impulse to “fix” it
It can be counterproductive or even harmful to offer advice or ways to “fix” the situation when you’re not specifically trained to do so. “Listen as your friend shares what’s on his or her mind without judgment, without minimizing the experience, and without trying to fix it. In fact, the less you say, the better,” says Lovinger.
Go outside with them
“A short walk around the neighborhood is fine, but a hike up a mountain is even better,” says Lovinger. “And this is key: Try to incorporate as much of nature’s beauty as possible. Over a hundred studies have shown that time spent in nature makes us feel calmer, and evokes a cavalcade of positive emotions like kindness, gratitude, openness, and generosity.”
Help with essential tasks
Depression can make everyday tasks like feeding or bathing oneself feel overwhelming. Harouni recommends offering to drop off a meal or groceries to your friend if that’s the case. “Having someone show care in this way, and making it a bit easier to engage in self-care—even if it's something simple, like a banana—can be so helpful to someone experiencing depression,” she says.