We know the drill. Don’t judge someone without walking in their shoes. Don’t make assumptions based off of a person you’ve never bothered to get to know. If someone opens up to you, figure out how to comfort them. All easier said than done, but for the most part, each of these is something we try to do. We try to remember everyone has something going on behind closed doors, struggles we don’t know about. It isn’t in ignorance or lack of trying that we fail. It’s in properly applying this to real life.
Obviously, it is not always possible to see that someone is hurting, or how. But finding the problem doesn’t matter if you can’t help the solution. Even if someone comes looking for help, explains the pain they’re feeling, opens themselves up to advice, none of that means we’ll know what to say. What to do.
A close friend of mine has recently admitted she has depression, and began to harm herself before she was comfortable telling anyone. When she finally did come to me, after my having not realized anything was wrong, I had no idea how to react. It came out of nowhere. But I know her better than almost anyone, and I felt this responsibility to say the right thing, to make her feel better, to show her how much I appreciated her coming to me. I wanted to make sure didn’t feel like she was alone. I had absolutely no idea how to do that.
I told her that I’d known a few other friends who’d gone through depression, that I’d talked to a few of them about counseling they’d gone to. I told her that, while I’d never gone through what she had, I knew what it felt like to feel lost and useless and a ton of other lengthy adjectives that I hoped made it clear she wasn’t alone.
That was not what she was looking for. That didn’t tell her she wasn’t alone; it made her feel as if her problem was insignificant. It’s like telling homeless people that it’s okay, because other people are homeless too, and they get along perfectly fine. She knew other people were depressed. My telling her and emphasizing that they were all fine now only made her feel as if she were failing where others were succeeding, instead of the reality that her struggle was unique to her. By throwing her into the category that I deemed “depression,” I took away her ability to communicate with me. By placing boundaries around what depression could be, I limited her expression of what she was going through.
Listing similar cases isn’t beneficial unless you’re a doctor and they’re a patient. Unless they’re looking for whether or not their condition is survivable, they don’t want to know who else has suffered. They’re focusing on their pain, their experience, their fight. They know they can survive. They came to you to figure out how. And their way will not be the same as anyone else’s; it’s unique to them.
Willingness, even eagerness, to help someone in need is always a positive thing. Trying to help when you don’t know how, however, can be counteractive when dealing with depression, or any mental disorder for that matter. This is in their head, which makes them constantly vulnerable. Helping is great, but poking and prodding to see which form of “help” works is not.
There has to be a better answer. Of course there is a better answer. The options can’t stop at ignore the problem or take a stab in the dark. Communication and understanding are our other options. There are websites, books, posters, acronyms to help people suffering with depression figure out how to deal with it. But there is next to nothing explaining to those who don’t suffer from the disorder how to help. Step by step instructions don’t exist, but something is better than what we have now. Preparing people for how to approach this situation instead of leaving them to flounder around in trial-and-error fashion has to start. We’re taught that depression can’t be overcome without outside support. By excluding advice for those around the sufferer, we are marooning them to deal with this problem on their own.
Communicating to more people how to handle the task of “helping” will allow for more communication between those seeking and providing it. It takes strength to go up to someone and ask them for help. When they do, we need to be ready to listen. Not talk about things we don’t understand, not offer advice on something we can’t relate to, but listen. That’s what no one tells you. This situation is so unique to the person, there’s no way to know how to help without hearing and understanding first.
It’s hard. It’s so freaking hard to not have any sage advice, no cure for the poison. But accepting that, and figuring out how to help in the long run, is a thousand times better than acting like we know the answer. Making up your own equation to solve a math problem doesn’t work; you don’t come out with a solution, you come out with eraser marks and random numbers and a bigger mess than what you started with.