The signs of depression can be incredibly subtle, and often friends and family have no idea what’s actually going on in a depressed person’s head. People who are depressed are often plagued by guilt and fear, and so they struggle to reach out for help. They might find it really hard to vocalise that they’re not doing too great, for fear of being judged.
Sometimes, understanding depression can take a lot of ‘reading between the lines’ and looking out for inconspicuous signs that your friend is trying to ask for help – but doesn’t quite know how.
Someone who is depressed but doesn’t want to make a big deal about it might minimise how they are feeling, or there might be certain patterns of behaviour that you begin to notice. These patterns won’t be obvious at all, but if you know your friend well they can be warning signs that something is definitely not right.
So – what signs should you look out for if you want to help your depressed friend?
1. Saying they don’t feel physically well (when the real problem is emotional)
Because mental health is something that you can’t see and physically diagnose, it can be difficult to understand. People who suffer from depression often use physical ill health as an excuse as to why they’re not themselves or don’t want to socialise, as physical pain is easier to explain than mental pain. Statements like “I have a headache”, “My back is sore”, “I think I’m getting flu” might be code words for “I’m depressed” if your friend appears to be in good physical health.
2. Complaining about being tired for no reason
Ever asked your friend what’s wrong, and they reply “Nothing, I’m just tired”? One of the primary symptoms of depression is mental – and physical – exhaustion. However, a lot of people use “I’m tired” as an excuse to explain why they are quiet or unsociable. If you notice that a friend often complains about being tired when they haven’t any real reason to be, this could be their way of subtly trying to tell you that they are not OK.
3. Wanting a change of scenery
Sometimes, a depressed person might decide that changing their environment will alleviate their depression. Statements like “I need to go somewhere new” or “I want to travel” or even “I want to change what I’m studying” all point to someone thinking that maybe an external change will ‘fix’ how they are feeling inside. If your friend constantly talks about making these kinds of changes, with the expectation that it will make them feel differently about their life, it could mean that they are in fact depressed.
4. Saying that they feel angry
Like physical pain, anger and frustration is more easy to explain than feeling depressed. Anger has a cause, while depression often doesn’t. Because it is easier to explain, someone who is depressed will often mask their depression with anger.
5. Minimising their pain with neutral responses
Depression frequently causes feelings of low self-esteem and guilt. Your depressed friend might find it really hard to be completely upfront about how they feel, because they think that their depression is all in their head and thus not ‘real’. They are afraid of being judged for being overly dramatic. When you ask your friend how they’re doing, neutral responses with a very slight negative tone could be a warning sign that they need to talk – “I’m hanging in there”, “I’m surviving”, “I’m OK I guess”, “Other people have it worse” etc.
While you shouldn’t jump to conclusions every time a friend seems distant or says they’re tired, it’s important to watch out for the people you love. Try and listen to the things they’re not telling you.
Helping a depressed friend involves looking for the not so obvious signs that something is wrong, and then being non-judgemental. Let them know that you’re there for them – even if you don’t fully understand exactly how they are feeling. Sometimes all they need is a shoulder to cry on and an ear to listen, and knowing that they have your support will make them feel safe!