Having a depressed friend is equal parts terrifying and annoying. I know, because I’ve been both depressed and the terrified friend.
I know what it’s like to be the sad drunk who ruins a party, but also the caretaker charged with the task of shoving a finger down someone’s throat — trying to force them to throw up the medley of alcohol and other substances they thought would be the Nirvana for their depression. I know what it’s like to apologize the morning after a three-hour crying session, the icy guilt causing my hands to tremble, but I also have rescheduled many days whenever my friend needed an unpaid counselor.
Most importantly, I know what it’s like to numbly wonder if I’d ever see the sun again, but also the one to worry that enough wasn’t done to help my friend — that I had misjudged, miscalculated, perhaps even misspoken when trying to comfort them. That, at the end of it all, I hadn’t done enough, and I would never see my friend again.
From all this, I’ve learned just one thing about what it means to be a real friend to someone going through a mental illness: Listening is great, listening is necessary, but don’t just listen — act.
Although I am certainly beyond thankful for the friends who sat by my side and listened to what I had to say, often times, trying to explain myself was a tiring and awful task. I was already being kept up endless nights by the negative thoughts I couldn’t fight. What I really needed was not a listener, but distraction, company, a chance to feel normal.
While I can’t speak for everyone, I know that the worst part of my depression was the loneliness caused by my impulsive desire to isolate myself. I would stay in my room as much as possible, skipping meals because I couldn’t handle the prospect of seeing people in the dining hall. I was overwhelmed with either fear or guilt that this temporary version of “me” wasn’t good enough, that my depressed presence would be nothing more than a burden for my friends.
What I therefore needed was not more opportunities to brood, but rather someone to impose their company on me and a sense of normalcy in spite of all the polite protests, excuses, and apologies I would inevitably throw at them. The best friends I had during this time were the ones who included me matter-of-factly in their life — the ones who rolled their eyes at my excuses, who followed up on plans made, who pestered me to take care of myself, who accepted that my best effort at being engaged and positive might not be perfect.
Dinner plans and study sessions and even surprise visits were the best kind of support I could ask for. When it comes to depressed friends, don’t be scared to be pushy. It’s easy for someone suffering from depression to shut off socially because they have come to believe that no amount of friendship can heal them. Learned helplessness is this psychological phenomenon where a person who has repeatedly failed to escape an awful experience will simply stop trying. At their worst, depression and anxiety are inescapable, but they ultimately become mild enough until learned helplessness is the only thing holding a person back. Real friends are the ones who are drag their friends out of quicksand.
Sometimes, this means seeking professional help. If a friend has a serious or chronic mental illness or may even be in danger of self-harm, be the one who sits them down and has a serious conversation about how getting help does not mean losing control. If that fails and they continue to be in a serious condition, email a Resident Dean, or perhaps even the professor of one of their classes. Sometimes, all it takes is a single extension, especially during finals or midterms week to get everything back on track.
Mental illness and self-harm are serious issues at Harvard and other campuses. As friends, we have a responsibility to take care of ourselves, first and foremost, but we also have a duty to heal others whenever we can. Real friends don’t just listen — they act.
Elizabeth Y. Sun ’19, a former Associate Editorial Executive, is a Government concentrator in Eliot House. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.