How to actually ‘be there for them’

For a little over a couple years now, I have been diagnosed with depression. Since then, it’s been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but recently, I’ve found it harder and harder to cope. 

Everything has seemed so overwhelming recently, and I feel like it’s getting harder and harder to grab on. There are days when getting out of bed is a Herculean task for me, and nights are spent with my anxious thoughts keeping me up.

This is a delicate subject, and even as I type this, I find it difficult to express my thoughts into words. But let me make it clear, I’m not writing this to gain your sympathy or pity. As a matter of fact, that’s the one thing I’m tired of gaining. 

When I felt I was at my lowest points, I took to social media as a sort of journaling therapy — a way to get my thoughts across while seeing if anyone had ever had experienced something similar and had advice to give. Most of the answers I found, however, were less than helpful.

“You can talk to me if you need to,” they tell me. If that were the case, I would’ve hoped they would have more to say other than “That sucks” or “Sorry to hear that” when I tell them what’s going on. All the “I’m here for you”s and “Things get better”s don’t help when you’re not actually there for someone, and to them, things can’t get better. These words are nice on paper, but in reality all they are are performative acts of sympathy.

There is a very fine line between sympathy and empathy that often gets too muddled, and I think that line needs to be a lot sharper and bolder. Sympathy tells a person you feel bad that they are struggling, empathy tells a person you can understand their struggles because you’ve made an effort to put things in their perspective. 

Now, I don’t think people are purposefully using sympathy as a performative act of kindness. However, I do think most of the time people choose sympathy over empathy because they are afraid to say things that might hurt the person in question, or they find it particularly hard to imagine themselves in the other person’s position. 

An effort has to be made, though, because the problem with sympathy is that people often feel like their act of sympathy is enough, and they’ve done the best they can for the person struggling, when in reality, if empathy is applied, you may find that there is so much more you could do to help.

So, allow me to offer the first basic tip for how you can help your friends by being more empathetic and less sympathetic: check up on them more than once. Sure, you responded to their initial statement about depression by telling them you’re there for them anytime, but you’re forgetting the anytime part. 

Depressive symptoms don’t just go away after a day. Just because your friend doesn’t post something or say something doesn’t mean they aren’t all of a sudden not struggling. Never be afraid to be the one to reach out and ask if they are okay.

On that note, don’t be afraid to ask them questions. This plays off that idea that people choose sympathy over being too afraid to say something wrong or not be helpful, but making that effort to understand exactly what your friends are going through could really make a difference. You shouldn’t be afraid of awkwardness if it means a more trusting and hopeful future for those struggling.

These are the things I had wished people did for me back when I was at my lowest points, and the things I was the most thankful for when people I knew would occasionally do it for me.

So take it from someone who has had to pull himself back from the edge multiple times: don’t make your depressed friends feel like they only have themselves. Most depressed people find it extremely difficult to carry out simple tasks, even if it’s for their own good, and seeking help is, at least for me, one of the most difficult and nerve-wracking things I’ve had to do. 

In a time when depression has increased significantly due to COVID-19 and other stressors, a lot more people may be struggling than you think. I’m sure a lot of those people would really appreciate some empathy and check-ins right now.