Tiny Gestures, Huge Compassion: Helping a Friend with Depression

friend with depression

I’d hardly call myself a writer about the human condition if I avoided the difficult things humans endure.

I’ve openly discussed my battle with depression. I’ve had many, many, many heartbreaking “me too” emails in return. More than you can imagine.

There is no shame in having depression. But there is a road of hard work and isolation. Thus, when someone says ‘me too’, that gesture, in effect, breaks my and her isolation and demonstrates mutual compassion.

It’s what I mean when I say ‘tiny gesture, huge compassion.’ I expose my pain when I talk about depression, in hopes that it might make a difference. And in just a few words, “me too,” a sort of trust and communion develops which tells me I’m not alone, someone trusted me to be honest too, and perhaps I played a role in that.

This type of small gesture, a powerful loop of compassionate interaction, is what people with depression need; not grand gestures, or large changes, and certainly not ‘to be fixed.’ But to be seen, understood, and loved. This is easy for depressed individuals to understand, we connect with each other and support each other easily.

It is not easy for everyone else, which is the topic of this post.

I’ve received many emails from individuals asking how they can support a friend with depression. Their earnest thoughtfulness is apparent in their words, but inevitably, so is their desperation to ‘fix’ their friend, usually expressed in some phrasing of “What can I do to make her better?”.

To them I say ‘You can’t. But you can still help.’

To all the friends out there, the caretakers, the generous souls who didn’t ask for this, but find it in their lives and feel compelled to act, this is for you.

Please read these words out-loud.


Sit with that thought for a second. . . Say it again.

Do you believe it? It takes time. Say it one more time.

As his friend, you are not the person to fix his depression. He has to do that with counseling, possibly medication, and lots of willpower.

The best thing you can do is make him feel it’s OK to be depressed around you.

Bizarre, right? But true.

Depressed people are overwhelmed by loneliness and isolation. They feel judged and misunderstood. They feel alone and scared. They want to be ok, they REALLY want to be ok in front of you. But they can’t, so they avoid you. And the loneliness gets worse.

More than anything, your friend needs you to accept him, to allow him to not be ok.

Your friend with depression doesn’t need much, just small gestures so he feels supported and not alone:

  • Stop by his place and be there. Watch TV, or movie. If he doesn’t want to interact, say ok cool ‘I’m going to do work here, I won’t bother you.’ Just do it, don’t ask for approval.
  • Be OK with silence. Revel in silence. Long for silence. You love silence. Don’t make him feel he has to talk.
  • If he does talk about what he’s going through, listen. It might come out all at once. Or in bits.
  • Ask open-ended questions or repeat what he says (“Tell me what that was like” or “Sounds like you are feeling tremendous sadness.”) You will feel like a counselor, but that’s OK.
  • If he says, “Stop being a counselor,” agree and rephrase: “Sorry, you’re totally right. But really, tell me more.” Or: “Sorry. We don’t have to talk about it now. But I’m interested.” Then go back to that lovely silence.
  • Make him coffee, tea or breakfast. Breakfast is such a comforting thing, brought to me by someone else, it’s love on a tray. Do NOT drink together, alcohol makes everything worse.
  • Get him outside if possible, walk around the block or a park. Doesn’t have to be a huge goal, maybe just outside on the street. The desire to stay inside is because sometimes, being around non-depressed people reinforces the joy he lacks. Find spaces that are comfort zones and non-threatening.
  • Try not to set expectations. “You sound great, maybe tomorrow you’ll be better” sounds encouraging, but he might be overwhelmed with fear he’ll let you down. He doesn’t need that. Just say ‘That was awesome that you went out today.”

Your friend with depression also needs HUGE compassion:

  • Depressed people can sabotage things that ease their depression. Depression tricks you into thinking you need it. Offers of help can seem like threats.
  • Try not to get defensive. He’s scared, hates himself, is overwhelmed with pain. If you get attacked, it is not personal, it is the fear.
  • Don’t look for positive feedback; you will likely not get it. But if he lets you into his world at all, you’re helping.
  • Take care of yourself. Know when you’re drained and cannot be supportive. If you have to pull away, don’t get defensive or emotional.
  • Find someone you can talk to, so you get support. Don’t feel bad about struggling or complaining about how hard it is to this person.
  • Enlist close friends if you think they can help too, but not ones who are judgmental or trying to “fix”.
  • If you believe he might harm himself or if you need advice and support, call the Samaritans, a Suicide-prevention hotline open 24 hours. They are active in the UK, India, the US and have equivalent agencies in most of Europe. I highly recommend reaching out, even if it’s not an emergency.

Make sure you give yourself some tiny gestures and huge compassion too.

Supporting a friend with depression is exceedingly hard. It will try your patience, and even grate against your morality: feeling like you’re watching and allowing someone to suffer. Do what you can and as much as you can. If you’re not the best person to help, be honest with yourself. Be honest with him. And then forgive yourself.

Most of all, thank you for being strong when we can’t.

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  • Alisa Grainawi

    thank you so so much for this post! I have to start with “me too”. and I also gotta say, even as somebody who struggles with depression, and anxiety, it helps to be reminded of all these things in such an eloquent way. I am pretty open with others about my struggles, but when others say “me too” to me, I have attempted to “fix” them too! and I know from experience that I don’t like that, as the depressed person, either. silly me! hopefully I’ll remember better in the future now.

    • Thank you Alisa. I’m glad it resonated with you.

  • Patty Clavijo

    Ellen, the way you write about depression helped me live with my depression. Your articles help me so much and I am happy to say that I have found and mastered many tools to keep depression in remission. I was sharing one of your articles with a friend and as I reread it realized that I forgot what it was like. I forgot what I needed in the midst of my darkest moments from my loved ones. I have a friend right now who I fear is suffering from depression, but I accused them of not putting in enough effort. I charged them with a character flaw instead of looking deeper and acknowledging my loving friend is ill, not flawed. That realization came thanks to rereading your work. Thank you.



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