One out of every four college students suffers from some form of mental illness.
While 44 percent of American college students report having symptoms of depression, 75 percent of them choose not to seek help. Since starting my undergraduate career at Carlow University, I’ve come to realize a large portion of my friends struggle with their mental health.
Although most of them have chosen to discuss their problems with doctors and take medications, there are still a few who don’t think they’re ready. While that’s completely okay, I do want my friends to know that I’m here and ready to support them.
Putting a name to the illness can be beneficial, but knowing you have depression doesn’t make the problem any less painful. While depression is a serious topic (19 percent of young people in America either contemplate or attempt suicide every year), conversations about mental illness are critical.
Confronting a friend with depression can be difficult, especially if you’re unsure of how to help them. I know from experience: Starting a conversation may not end well, and can lead to uncomfortable tension. While I’m not a therapist, I’m definitely a friend who values conversation and listening when necessary. Here are small things you can do for a friend struggling with depression, and in desperate need of love and support.
1. Don’t Blame Them
Seriously, don’t. You have to realize depression isn’t a person’s fault, and they shouldn’t be made to feel like their illness is a choice. A person with depression doesn’t think, “You know what I should do today? Stay in bed, cry uncontrollably while simultaneously avoiding all of my responsibilities. Sounds like a fucking blast!”
Don’t make your friends feel even worse by expecting them to “snap out of it.” They won’t because they can’t, and if they could I’m sure they would.
2. Watch What You Say
You don’t want to trivialize a friend’s experience by using the word “depression” to describe your temporary feelings of sadness. If you think you may be depressed, that’s one thing, but if you’re “depressed” because you procrastinated a research paper, you may want to think about what you’re saying. Depression isn’t just sadness—depression is an inner-aching, a raw feeling of “nothing matters,” or “I don’t matter.” Friends with depression may stop eating, quit activities, experience intense anxiety or say troubling things like, “I want out,” or “I’m sick of being here.”
I have friends who sleep for extended periods of time, miss their classes, avoid meetings and sometimes don’t attend work because they physically can’t get out of bed. You don’t want to reduce their illness to “just feeling sad.” Depression is much more complex, and you can avoid belittling your friends simply by being more aware. Your words may hurt them, or diminish their pain.
3. Validate Their Feelings
Validation is key. Sometimes, college students don’t seek help because they “feel crazy.” Remind your friend: Depression doesn’t mean they’re any less of a person. You could simply say, “I’m so sorry you’re dealing with depression; is there anything I can do?” If you notice they aren’t in class, you could send them a text: “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
If your friend knows you’re thinking about them, that alone could change the course of their day—remind them they’re not invisible, and that their presence in your life is important. Depression is real, not something they’re making up or something they have 100 percent control over.
4. Share Your Story
You don’t want to come across as overbearing, or make a serious conversation about you when the focus should remain on your friend. However, sharing a personal story with your friend may help to strengthen your bond and establish a sense of trust.
Trust can relieve some of the pressure your friend may be feeling as they attempt to open up to you about their depression. Tell them about your experience battling depression (if you have that experience), what’s worked for you or what’s not helped at all. Don’t talk over them, but talk with them. You aren’t any less important than they are, but they need to be heard and cared for, and you need to be there for them.
5. Involve Other Friends
I don’t mean bring an entire crew of people to your friend’s room and ask them why they’re blowing off group projects. I do mean: If you notice your friend is struggling to turn in their work on time (or at all), don’t feel like you have to confront them alone.
Confide in a close friend you can trust, and ask them if they’ve noticed the same kind of behaviors. You can both approach your friend together, and help them get their work done.
6. Encourage Counseling
To be clear, I don’t mean, “Hey, you have depression? Go to counseling!” There’s a lack of conversation concerning mental health for a reason. Most college students don’t seek out counseling centers because they find therapy to be a sign of weakness. Other college students feel embarrassed, don’t want to betray their family members or want to avoid awkward encounters with strangers. There are much more subtle ways to encourage a friend to start regularly attending counseling.
First, remind them how beneficial it would be to take advantage of counseling because of campus convenience. They could possibly attend weekly sessions between classes, and no one would ever have to know. Also, as a student, counseling services are free. If your friend requires more serious care than what your campus can offer, counselors are qualified and prepared to handle potentially dangerous situations.
Keep in mind: You can only do so much for a friend struggling with their mental health. I’m aware of the statistics, but I can’t diagnose a person and I would never want to spread misinformation. Considering the seriousness of mental illness, friends with depression may need more help than a midnight walk around campus, or what you’re able to offer to them. Counseling may be their best bet moving forward.