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Dr. Hendrie Weisinger

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What to Tell Your Depressed Friend

Posted: 05/12/11 02:35 AM ET

"Wow," I said aloud as I watched 'Melo make a 30-footer to tie the game. "The Knicks can do it, they can beat the Celtics! Plenty of time, the fourth quarter is just starting," were my internal cheers.

Then, worse than the sound of a game ending buzzer, my BlackBerry made a noise. Instinctively, I answered and, despite the fact that the Knicks had just thrown the ball away, I was pleased to hear the voice of a good friend. Almost always upbeat, she sounded down. 10:40 left on the game clock.

"Hey, what's up?" I soon understood her voice's message. To summarize, one of her best friends, a very successful professional woman, had, like millions of others, fallen victim to clinical depression. Over the course of a year, her life had fallen apart. Divorce, a loss job, avoiding friends -- the story is familiar to most mental health professionals. I was now listening attentively, and I could hear the sadness and frustration in her words. She finished on the hope that I could give her some advice on how to help her depressed friend.

I took a 10-second mental time out to remind myself that her dilemma is common. Statistics alone would tell you that there is a good chance you have faced, or will face, the same challenge -- help a friend when he or she is depressed. I also knew that that most people, despite good intentions, are ineffective at this daunting task.

In the next second, my course was clear. I broke the silence, "Listen, get a piece of paper. I am going to give you some tips for helping your depressed friend. I want you to write them down so you will be more aware of them."

While she searched for a pen, I went to my nearby bookshelf and found "Contagious Emotions: Staying Well When Your Love One is Depressed" by Ronald Podell, M.D., a leading expert in helping individuals effectively cope with the depression of their loved ones. I knew his tips would help my friend.

"Ready?" "Go ahead," she said.

First, I will tell you what not to do. You certainly don't want to inadvertently make it worse:

  1. Don't try to be strong for your friend by telling him to "pull himself up by the bootstraps and be tough." Watch what you say despite your good intentions, because you will tend to say the wrong thing many times and be discouraging.
  2. Don't get so involved and frustrated by your friend's seeming lack of optimism and confidence that you wind up arguing with your friend -- especially about what he should and should not do.
  3. Do not join your depressed friend in his depression -- remember that depression is contagious and that your friend's feelings are not your feelings.

I told her to keep those tips near her phone so when she spoke to her friend, she'd have a reminder and it would make it harder to "catch" her friend's emotions.

Now write down what to do:

  1. Maintain warm, caring relationship free from hostility and tension.
  2. Learn to cope with the hardships that relating frequently with a depressed person can impose such as the tendency to be lured into destructive criticism and arguments about your friend's passivity.
  3. Learn what depression is -- a clinical disorder that is not something someone turns "on" or "off" and may be triggered by an event but becomes a brain chemistry disorder separate from that event.

I told her to keep these tips next to her phone, too. She thanked me for listening, for helping her feel better. "Take care," were my final words.

Then it hit me -- I was now looking at a re-run of "The A Team." I may have helped my friend, but I would have to settle for the Knicks-Celtics ESPN highlights. Not fair. In the next few seconds, I found out the Knicks lost at the buzzer -- a great game, and I missed it! I try to help a friend, and I get screwed. "So not fair," ran my thoughts. I started to feel depressed -- but then I caught myself:

Help your friends when they are depressed, my friend!

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