9 Ways to Support a Friend in College Who Is Struggling With Depression
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College is supposed to be a whirlwind time full of exciting possibilities and opportunities. As we all know, life has its ups and downs. Sometimes friends we care about can get caught in a storm cloud of depression. Depression can be a challenging condition. It can wrap its darkness around everything that once felt bright in the world. It’s more than just feeling down or sad for a day or two. Depression is characterized by persistent feelings of hopelessness that can drain a person’s energy and lead them to have a distorted view of themselves and the world. Watching a friend grapple with depression can feel overwhelming, but keep in mind that even a small gesture of empathy and support can make a big difference for them. Looking for ways to help support them in their struggle with depression shows that you’re being a great friend and part of their support system. 

Signs and symptoms of depression

If you’ve noticed a change of behavior in a friend — maybe they’re withdrawing from your social circle, losing interest in their favorite things or struggling to keep up with daily tasks — it’s natural to worry about them. They’re your friend and you care about their well-being. The most important thing you can do is to help create a safe space for your friend to be open and honest about how they’re truly feeling, without judgment or pressure to label anything. It’s important to be aware of depression’s signs; however, you should also remember everyone experiences it differently: 

  • Anxiety and panic
  • Difficulty with classwork
  • Missing classes
  • Changes in appetite or weight
  • Changes in sleeping patterns
  • Poor hygiene 
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Lack of energy 
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Risky behaviors
  • Poor self-esteem
  • Unexplained guilt
  • Unexplained physical pain
  • Sense of being overwhelmed
  • Thoughts or talking about self-harm or taking their own life

How can you support a friend struggling with depression?

It can be a pretty helpless feeling to watch someone you care about struggle with depression. One of the best things you can do to help them is to be there for them. You can support them in a variety of ways:

  • Listen without judgment or the intention to “fix” your friend — Let them know that you are there for them and want to know how they’re feeling and what’s going on. Ask open-ended questions to help gently pull them into conversation. When they’re ready to talk, listen carefully. Don’t be quick to give advice or opinions. They may just want to get everything out and ask for advice or opinions when they’re ready. Take care not to judge them. Just being a listening ear and being understanding can be a powerful healing tool. 
  • Ask how you can help — Don’t jump into helping them. Asking your friend what you can do to be helpful is more respectful and can make them more willing to accept help. Be direct in your offer for help. Don’t say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” It’s more effective to say, “What do you need help with today?” Depression can make day-to-day tasks feel overwhelming and things can pile up quickly. You may work together to tackle the task, or you may step up and do the task completely. Sometimes simply having company can make the tasks feel less daunting. 
  • Offer support — Let your friend know that you’re there to support them in whatever way they need. This could be by offering to accompany them to counseling sessions or simply being there to listen when they need to talk.
  • Take it seriously — Depression is often a chronic condition that may require long-term management, even with treatment. It’s a serious mental health condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. If your friend starts acting out of character, including engaging in risky behaviors, it’s important to understand that these behaviors aren’t attention-seeking. They’re usually a cry for help from someone who has been struggling in silence. 

If you’re truly concerned that there is an immediate risk to your friend’s safety, whether due to suicidal thoughts, self-harm or extreme risk-taking:

  • Don’t leave them alone.
  • Call 911 or the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Take away anything they can use to self-harm.
  • Stay calm and reassuring.
  • Keep them included — Even if they tend to withdraw, make an effort to include them. Extend casual invitations so your friend knows they’re wanted, but make it clear there’s no pressure to participate unless they’re ready. Remind them that you’re happy to see them whenever they feel up to joining outings. 
  • Make an effort to check in regularly — Consistent communication can provide friends with a sense of support and reassurance. People with depression may avoid reaching out for support because they feel like a burden to others. This can make it even more important for friends to check in regularly and let them know that they are cared for and supported, regardless of how they are feeling. It’s important to approach these check-ins with empathy and understanding, acknowledging that your friend may be struggling but also respecting their boundaries and giving them space if needed. 
  • Support them in seeking professional help — If your friend is not already in therapy, encourage them to consider it as a valuable resource for managing depression. Offer to help them research therapists or treatment options. If they are already in therapy, encourage them to stick with it, especially on difficult days 
  • Be patient — Recovery from depression is a journey that takes time and may involve setbacks. It’s important to be patient with your friend and with the process of finding the right treatment. Your support and understanding can make a significant difference in their recovery. 
  • Take care of yourself — When you’re helping someone struggling with depression, it can be easy to drop everything and dash to their side. It’s important to also take care of your own needs so you can continue to support them. Supporting a friend struggling with depression can be emotionally taxing; nourishing yourself and knowing your limits allows you to provide more sustainable support. Set boundaries if necessary and practice self-care. Create a plan for if they need you during a time you’re not available, like a code word they can send if they’re having a crisis. 

Lightfully U can help you support your friend when they’re struggling with depression

Taking steps to support a friend struggling with depression can play a vital role in helping them get the care they need. At Lightfully U, we’re well versed on the effects depression can have on college students. Our unique approach with process-based therapy can help your friend identify their core processes that are being affected and learn coping skills to fight depression. Our compassionate experts use the best parts of evidence-based therapies to provide whole-person-centered care.

Change is possible. When they’re ready to take the first step, reach out to our Admissions Concierge Team. We’ll take the next steps together, toward the fullest, brightest version of them.

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