I Think My Friend/Family Member is Depressed. What Do I Do?
One of the biggest (if not the biggest) challenge faced by people living with depression in a country like Cameroon, is the fact that aside from the condition barely being recognized for what it is – a mental illness, there is a profound dearth of professionals skilled in recognizing and treating the condition. This often means that a person who is depressed has little to no resources and their well-meaning friends/family are left wondering what to do and how they can help.
The good news is that we are not completely without resources. One of the benefits of being in the information age is that we have access to information – information which in this case can be lifesaving. It is usually not recommended to rely on the internet for medical advice but given the circumstances, the internet is a powerful tool in the hands of concerned and compassionate friends/family who truly want to help. Notice that I place emphasis on concerned and compassionate because quite often, the reaction people have to friends and family members who are depressed are more about easing their own discomfort than it is about taking care of the depressed person.
Being armed with compassion – your ability to empathize with, to understand and share the feelings of the depressed is what enables you to look for signs depression to begin with. Depression is not like Malaria whose symptoms we’re well aware of. Recognizing if/when a loved one is depressed requires that we already be paying attention to them, that we make the effort to understand them and that we are concerned and willing to act, to make ourselves available as a source of help for this person.
Next, it is important to listen to the person. Listen silently without judging, without trying to fix the situation. Just listen. Discussing feelings and inner monologues is not something that comes easily to many Cameroonians, male or female. Between our cultures and religion, we function in a world where to be sad and visibly so, is often met with admonishment and platitudes ranging from “Just trust in the Lord” to “No condition is permanent” or “Other people have it worse”, without much thought given to the pathology of the negative feelings. The result is that people find it hard to talk about what is going on inside. People feel like they are not supposed to be sad and will put up elaborate acts to hide the sadness. This doesn’t have to be the case and this will only change if we develop the attitude of listening to each other and allowing each other to be sad when it is warranted.
A therapist friend of mine stated once that she feels that a lot of the people, who seek her services, do so because they have not allowed themselves to feel sad and to process negative feelings when it is warranted. They have been led to believe that being always cheerful and stoic no matter the circumstances is a sign of good mental health and so they constantly suppress any negative feelings they might have. This, she said, is like blowing air into a balloon without taking into consideration the elastic limits of the balloon. Eventually it will pop. Allowing our friends and family (and ourselves for that matter) the space to be sad, angry, frustrated etc is important and if they are depressed even more so. While listening, it is important to pay attention to what they say, particularly if they start talking about suicide. Suicidal talk no matter how small and insignificant it may seem, is always to be taken very seriously. Offer reassurance and monitor the person.
After listening, then comes the talking and I say this with a caveat, because it is not talking to immediately fix the person’s problems. Depression is not a moment of sadness that can be talked away with a pep talk or a quick prayer. Talking could be simply acknowledging that you have heard the person, that you can understand, if you can. If you can’t, tell them you can’t understand but you hear them all the same, and that you care. Sometimes that is all is needed.And if you have nothing to say, then say nothing. Don’t give in to the need to fill the silence. Sometimes, depressed people will be hostile and respond negatively. Don’t take it personally. Also, learn what not to say. It is important to remember that how we talk to a person with depression contributes to either the person trusting us more or the person shutting us out. There are numerous websites which tackle the issue of how to talk with a person with depression and what not to say. Health Central has some good tips
Finally, seek help from adults you can trust. I was 13 when I first realized that the burden I had been feeling inside wasn’t just a momentary time of sadness induced by having to go back to boarding school after holidays. I’d been at school for a month and I still hadn’t successfully transitioned from house to school mode. I woke up every morning dreading the rest of the day, I dragged myself through school activities and felt isolated from friends (of course, I made the effort not to seem this way), I couldn’t concentrate in class, I ate a lot and spent the day looking forward to 9pm and lights out when I would close my eyes and the world would fade away. Fortunately, I am a big reader and often found solace in books. I spent a lot of time in the school library and that is where I came across The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. I read through the book and the helpful advice given and I thought I had found the solution to my problem. I needed to think positively! I tried this for another month, returning to read snippets of the book and apply it religiously. I felt even worse because all my positive thinking didn’t remove the helpless and lost way I felt about simply being alive. Finally, in desperation, I wrote a letter to a family friend, a priest. I tried in my little 13 year old way to communicate how I felt. I must have made an impression because within days, my parents visited me at school. In their own way, they tried to reassure me that they were there for me. That didn’t quite solve the problem but it did help me know that I had adults in my life who cared. This priest eventually became a confessor, someone to whom I could talk honestly about things that bothered me. Take a close look around you, seek out the adults you know you can trust whether parents, teachers, relatives and spiritual advisers. Approach them together.
Most importantly, be there for your loved one as you would want them to be there for you. Keep their confidence and do not violate their trust. In the immortal words of Christ: Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you.