Depression is one of the hardest things you can go through as a Nigerian for reasons you probably already know, but what’s equally hard is the feeling of helplessness that comes with having someone you love go through depression and not knowing how to be there for that person.
Before we begin to talk of how best to help a depressed friend, you need to know what depression looks like. In everyday conversation, we believe depression to be just a state of mind, a deep, drawn out sadness that usually follows a terrible occurrence e.g. a failed test, a failed marriage, the death of a loved one, a recently diagnosed terminal illness etc. In psychology, however, depression is in fact a mental illness and is not just characterized by sadness but also a diminished interest in nearly all activities–even basic activities like taking a bath or brushing your teeth–and is prolonged over a period of weeks. There are different variations of depression. Major depression, along with the unwillingness to participate in activities, is characterized by ideations of suicide or self-inflicted injury. In bi-polar disorder, there’s manic-depressive illness in which the ill person’s mood swings back and forth between mania and depression, which makes it even harder to determine his or her state of mind. In dysthymia, depression is less exact and can easily be brushed off as just low self-esteem.
Whatever way your friend’s depression chooses to manifest itself, before you confront him or her, you have to answer a very important question within yourself and that is: Are you ready for the responsibility? The worst thing that can happen is taking on that responsibility and watching things turn for the worse, e.g. an attempted suicide.
Whether your answer to that question is a yes or no, there should be a confrontation. And the confrontation should depend on the nature of the relationship and the type of person he or she is. If you know this person to be more of a loner or someone who appreciates his or her private space, it will be foolhardy of you to confront your friend in a public or crowded space.
If you and your friend relate more in a group, then it would be better to have his or her closest friends present, because as much as we hate to see it, even in cliques there is always one particular person you identify the most with and for your depressed friend, that might not be you. Location is also important. Have the confrontation in whatever space you feel is comfortable and private. Your friend will be less likely to brush you off with an I am fine.
During the confrontation, affirm confidentiality and trust. Let your friend know he or she can trust you with what is going on and that whatever is said stays between the two of you.
What’s more important than asking the right questions or saying the right words is listening. Listen to the words coming out of your friend’s mouth, not necessarily to give answers but to understand what is actually wrong. Take their words seriously. Do not try to outweigh your friend’s pain by giving anecdotes of terrible things you have gone through or are going through. Do not quote scripture or some tacky self-help book you read once upon a time. Just listen. And when the time comes to speak, even if you say something horrible like a quote from some tacky self-help book you read once upon a time, what is important at the end of the confrontation is to reaffirm good words to your friend and to point him or her in the direction of professional help. Ensure he or she seeks professional help from a licensed counsellor first, not a priest or imam or even family members.
When I was depressed, I was referred to Mentally Aware Nigeria by one of my good friends and I was given a counsellor whom I had a few sessions with for no fee whatsoever. I highly recommend this NGO for people who do not have the money to pay for a private counsellor.
After the confrontation, depending on your answer earlier, you can decide to be present in his or her situation and take up the responsibility or to not have that burden. Being present means checking up, asking about therapy, visiting often, feeding, nurturing or even just bringing good vibes into his or her living space. It also means helping where you can. If he or she is struggling with finances or academics or personal lifestyle choices like an addiction and you can help, do so. It means encouraging a fresh start. And the risk of being present is, no matter what you do, no matter how much love you give, he or she will make decisions which may or may not be a by-product of what you said or did. You will not know unless there’s a suicide note left behind. And you’re going to have to deal with the repercussions of being present which includes the effects on your mental health.
I think I speak for the vast majority of those of us who have been depressed or are depressed in saying that depression is a lot like sobriety in terms of one’s ability to slip back into old habits. You can easily find yourself sinking down the rabbithole with the wrong train of thought. Friends who are present and those who are strong enough to say I cannot handle being present but still take the initiative to ask if you are okay and to point you in the direction of professional help really make the difference.
Amarachi Ike, the writer of this work is a 2023 Medical Student in the University of Nigeria Enugu Campus.
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