We’re long past the days of thinking only bad people experience depression. Those stricken by evil spirits, suffer from an ancestral curse, or those who have taken up American culture and and are no more content with the life they have here, in Nigeria. We have lost too many people, too close to our hearts to treat this illness like it’s a plague. We’re past the days of claiming Africans don’t get depressed. We now realise it happens to the best of us. And at its worst, the best of us don’t survive it. We also know, at least, one person in our circles who is depressed, perhaps clinically so.
Of course, this knowledge doesn’t stop us from being shocked when celebrities we love succumb to the agony of depression. We grieve in public, share the ways they’ve touched us, then send out generic tweets into the world that anyone who is in that same state shouldn’t hesitate to reach out to us.
Sometimes we don’t mean what we say. We’re just caught in the emotions of the moment, not ready to lose another loved one to depression. Other times we genuinely care, but are ill-equipped to fulfill our promise. Like how we tell people we love we’ll always be there for them, even when we know death hasn’t given us a waiver – we’re just spreading cheer.
But we can do better than just make these promises. We can become the kind of person who fulfills them. The person who says ‘if you ever feel like this, don’t hesitate to call me’ and it won’t land in the listener’s ears like an empty statement.
So, what do we do?
We do this already when friends tell us they have a headache or any other kind of physical illness. We ask how it hurts, where it hurts, when the hurt started and what they’ve done to try to make it go away. No two people experience depression the same way, therefore, questions are necessary even when we believe ourselves to be experts in what it means to be depressed.
We can ask when the person started to feel sad or depressed? What triggered the episode? Is there anything that makes them feel better? Is there anything that makes them feel worse? And if they’re on medications, we can ask if they’ve made any recent changes to their diet or medication.
If we ask the questions and the friend is open to talking, we should listen and pay attention to what is being said. The world is probably suffering from an epidemic of people talking without listening. This is already sad, but worse when we ask questions of people in an ill state and do not patiently listen to their replies. Sometimes we don’t even ask the question. Someone might call us with concerns about their life, career, family, hoping we’ll listen.
We all probably have friends we roll their eyes when they call because “they always do this.” And perhaps thetas true. But if we pick that call and want to be a better person to them, listening is probably the best give we can give in the moment.
Listen and let them know we’re paying attention. Repeating their words back to them, so they know we hear them. Don’t second-guess their responses or overreact to the details of their stories. Just listen.
Sometimes we ask questions, listen and believe we have answers to the problem at hand. We know just what has triggered the episode and can suggest ways of taking out that trigger, or we even know to suggest that the friend visit a trained professional and already have a contact ready. Then they turn around and refuse to take that advice. Don’t throw tantrums like they’ve done the worst thing in the world. It’s no good putting pressure on someone who is pressured already. Encourage them to speak to someone else they trust if they think they need a second opinion. Make the suggestion, but do not issue ultimatums or make it appear their ability to remain in contact with you is based on taking advice whenever you give it. Sometimes we can do nothing to help. What we shouldn’t do is make things worse.
Don’t believe you can’t save anyone
None of us is Jesus Christ, or superman. We can’t save everyone. We can’t save anyone. We can help, but we can’t make it our duty to rescue anyone from depression or blame ourselves if we don’t succeed in making a depressed person feel better. It’s not just harmful to the sick person; it’s unhealthy for us too. We should also learn to solicit for professional help when it’s clear we’re in over our heads.
Don’t be a firefighter
Don’t be that person who only texts when a depressed person is visibly showing signs of crisis. This isn’t an ignoble thing in itself, but it’s even better to be that person who stays in touch. Who shares the good times with the friend. If the person suffering from depression is super close, we might even need to be intentional about activities we engage in with them. We should figure out the things they love, things we love and try to do them together as much as possible. Create moments of joy and happiness that we’ll always cherish, because, after all, that’s why we’re friends.
Pay extra attention
We don’t have to wait until the sad tweets or the suicide note to know when moods go south. We can do even better by paying attention. By noticing the silences and the noises. By watching the patterns of their emotions for when they’re most pre-disposed to experiencing a depressive episode and doing our best to be available when that time comes.
Learn more about depression
Hollywood movies have this trope where lovers of ill people study in libraries and online about the condition of their loved ones. This is a great thing to do. It will save us from saying potentially harmful things like “Suicide is selfish.” It will also prepare us for noticing the peculiarities of whatever condition our loved one is going through. It helps, for instance, to know what anhedonia means. It also helps to know it’s not the only symptom of depression. We know too little about mental health to be too conceited to research more.
Lastly, it does no one any good if we take care of others while neglecting ourselves. “Falana pay attention to yourself; the first object of care is self,” say the Yorubas. Physician, heal thineself.
If you have more thoughts on helping folks going through mental health issues, not just depression, please share.
Image via Georgie Pauwels