If you don’t know what Clinical Depression is, count yourself very lucky that you’ve never come across it. And after expressing that gratitude, educate yourself. Google it and read, because it is one of the most pervasive, intense, and shockingly commonplace illnesses we have today.
Apollo Hospitals and other sources estimate that there are over ten million cases a year in India alone. Fortunately for us, not every case is crippling in nature, requiring months of medication and therapy. Many depressed people can start their recovery processes simply by gaining access to a strong relationship.
You have the opportunity to be that strong, caring relationship for someone, and help them get their mind together, and here are four things that you should keep in mind.
Don’t Try to Close on the First Deal
The most important thing to understand when dealing with someone with depression or similar issues* is they’re not asking you to solve their problem. They haven’t made you their doctor, nor are they expecting your magic potion of wisdom.
*Anxiety, Bipolar disorder, Borderline Personality disorder, or others
If you say things like “It’s all in your head” or “happiness is a state of mind”, I don’t care how well-intentioned you are. You are an asshole. Don’t be one.
Don’t be an asshole, asshole.
Understand that mental illness is not your run-of-the-mill problem that has a simple solution. It’s not drinking yourself into a coma or flipping the board when your 12 year old cousin is whipping you at Monopoly or blaming the dog for your unfinished homework.
Your “simple solution” is something a person with mental illness has probably already tried. A high-functioning anxious person has already thought about it, tried it, re-tried it, put it away, tried again out of shame, and decided it doesn’t work.
Most mental disorders arise from years of negative conditioning, problematic childhoods, and continually abusive relationships. Most young adults first develop their problems as adolescents and carry it through into adulthood, where it becomes apparent.
Several years of developing illness need at least several months of treatment. A simple solution does not exist. I wish it did, but it doesn’t.
“Oh but this one friend of mine said he tried thing X and it changed his life instantly!” No, it didn’t. We’re storytellers. We are attuned to the three-act structure of Opening, Body, and Conclusion in our adventures, where the third act comes at the behest of a sudden twist.
But healing, repairing, and rebuilding are not an adventure — they’re work. Life doesn’t get encapsulated in a three-act structure. But because we’re used to this format, we think months of work translates into overnight success. If your third cousin healed her depression by drinking tea, she did it by drinking a hundred cups of tea over 3 months, not by drinking it once.
One step solutions end up being dismissive. When you give the first solutions that come to mind, what you are also saying is that your friend hasn’t tried these things yet. It can be very insulting.
Imagine you said, “I’m hungry,” and I respond with “Why don’t you eat something?” Obviously, you’ve already considered that idea, and I implied you haven’t.
Bottom Line: If you care, you will realize that helping your friend is more than a one-time effort. It requires patience and commitment.
Dealing with things you don’t understand can get very intimidating. When you’re not clear on your “What” and “Why”, your mind pulls you away from doing what you know you need to do, or had previously decided to do.
The easiest way you can be of actual help, is just to be physically present. Often, an easy atmosphere of company is more helpful to someone’s mood and state than any number of beers and sermons.
Human beings are proud to a fault. If you ask someone “what’s wrong?”, the standard response is “nothing”, but you both know something is off. In such a situation, you can anticipate that your friend might need support, but is hesitant to accept it. Instead of pushing them to tell you, occasionally you can say “okay”, and sit down with them.
Be in the same space, and show quietly that you are comfortable, encouraging them to feel the same.
If you live together, grab your book or laptop or work, and sit down with them. Even being in the same room, quietly working, sends a soft but powerful message that you care and want to help. Over time, this builds trust.
When appropriate, physical contact is also amazing. It has been especially helpful for me personally. When I was going through my own depression, a hug, a handshake, and even just grabbing the shoulder of a friend would bring me into a normal frame of mind, even if just momentarily.
My Story of Physical Anchorage
Back when I was in college, I wasn’t depressed, but I used to do this silly thing that made a lot of sense to me later. I had a friend whom I really enjoyed talking to, and whenever we would talk, I would hold up my index finger in front of her.
And she’d get the message, smile, and touch her index finger to mine. And that’s how we’d sit there and talk.
A couple of years later, I realized that what I was doing was anchoring myself. I was using her physical contact to keep myself mentally grounded and aware in that situation, as well as reinforcing my own feeling of trust towards her.
I had always been a very angry person (up until recently). The stresses of a new environment and college responsibilities would obviously wear on me as well. She was a friend I could always talk to, and I’d feel better, no matter what the situation. My muscle memory knew it before my brain did, which is why it reinforced that trust with a simple touch.
Subconscious muscle memory is far more powerful than your conscious brain memory. Being physically present in your depressed friend’s environment or giving them physical reassurance directly targets that muscle memory, which eases and loosens up, giving relief.
Bottom Line: The easiest way to start building a relationship of trust and care is to show that you’re comfortable in their presence. Spend time in their vicinity, and when appropriate, physically reassure them with friendly touches, handshakes, and hugs.
Shock and Awe
The Oatmeal talked about the Backfire effect, which says that we resist new information about things we care about because our brains treat it as a real, cognitive threat. And so, it is very difficult to get in with people you want to help, especially when they have mental illnesses, which they can be really defensive about.
I have a concept I like to call the bastard brain — a mental block that we all have that protects us from change. We all tend to get into patterns. Cyclical behavior is comfortable, because it is familiar.
We do not move ourselves away from painful or abusive behaviors because we are comfortable, and we do not want to be happy. Being the adaptive creatures we are, we can become comfortable even in misery.
And anything that breaks cyclical behavior gets the brain’s threat response team on full alert.
At any point in time, you have a “state” that you are settled into — a sum of your being in that moment, and that state can be broken. Once you break state, you can begin implementing change and improvement. Think of it as breaking your bastard brain’s walls down — you fight past its threat response to get to the good stuff.
How do you break state? By manipulating your friend’s feeling of tension.
Understanding State through Tension
Tension is the dormant form of action. Your anxious or depressed friend getting ready to fight you for your words is their tension. Tension is tightness, and when controlled, tension is action. When controlled, tension is the catalyst to helping your friend help themself.
There are three ways to decrease tension — humor, surprise, and movement. All three of these release the tension from the body involuntarily, in the form of laughter, flinching, and heat respectively. By using these three tools, you can release your friend’s resistance, and break their comfortable state, thereby making them more willing to accept change.
Sometimes, you will also need to increase tension, to help your friend learn to deal with it. This can be done by antagonizing, by dissociative mocking, or using reverse psychology, among others.
Antagonizing is playing the asshole — being dismissive or rude. Do this when your friend is ready to take it, and ready to fight. When they defend themselves, you can jump in and start dissociative mocking. That is when you break your friend into two people — the suffering ‘weakling’ that you mock, and the strong friend that you cherish. You show them that they are two different people, embodying their depression as a separate being, hence allowing them to start distancing themselves from their negative feelings.
Why do you need all this roundabout mental politicking? Because the bastard brain is very stubborn, and the easiest way to get it to shut up is to distract it with surprise. That is when people become open to change.
For a deeper understanding of state breaks, particularly with humor, surprise, and reverse psychology, you can watch this brilliant video by Charisma on Command below.
Bottom Line: The most effective way to help is to manipulate tension and break the state of comfort. Show your friend the unexpected, and while they are surprised, get in there and help to leave a lasting impact.
Be Proactively Aware
For every depressed soul who builds up the courage or intent to share their pain, there are probably dozens who cannot. It is not always possible for someone mentally ill or exhausted to ask for help — that’s the equivalent of expecting a wheelchair-bound person to stand up for you.
(Should I insert a picture of Kanye here? No, that incident turned out to be a misunderstanding.)
The world is like a fancy French restaurant. It’s confusing and pretentious, and if you can’t communicate, you get judged and dismissed. However, if you know what you’re doing, you’ll get served amazing things. If you build good relationships, you’ll be treated like a prince.
Relationships feel difficult and complicated, but they really aren’t. They’re all about love, kindness, and respect. Everybody is starved for respect, including your depressed friend. Respect them enough to treat their concerns seriously, and you’ll do wonderfully.
If you know what you’re doing in a relationship, you’ll catch problems before they become severe. If you care, you will automatically be proactive and aware of the other’s pain, without even trying. What you must ask yourself is how much you care.
Bottom Line: People might not be able to ask for help. Pay attention, and you’ll see signs that call on you. Be caring and respectful.
How much patience do you have? How much can you be present? And how much can you pull them out of their misery? The answer to these questions might be the key to eradicating depression and loneliness, one person and one relationship at a time.
Thank you for reading! Did you enjoy it? If you did, come say on [email protected] and Unkempt.