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How to Be a 'Good Friend' to Someone With Depression When You're Depressed Too

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To have a friend, be a friend.

That’s how the saying goes. When you have a mental illness, a friend who cares, who understands, who simply listens, can help you keep going when you can’t see any other reason to. That’s a Good Friend.

When you are depressed, you may neglect your friends, even your Good Friends, and I have certainly done that. I permanently lost one friend over it. But another, Peggy, kept reaching out to me, and I eventually responded. We then had a good game of “I’m a Bad Friend. I didn’t reach out enough.” “No, I’m a Bad Friend. I knew you were reaching out and I didn’t reach back.”


There are limits. Boundaries. You may call them self-serving or self-saving, but there they are.

There’s the friend you don’t know how to be a Good Friend to. You keep reaching out and you know there’s nothing you can really do except what you’re already doing. Your attempts at making a connection are met with recitals of various woes, reasons why any suggestions won’t help, and stories about Bad Friends and clueless family members. While you don’t expect your friend to perk you up, the unrelenting black cloud does get to you after a while.

You’re tempted to stop reaching out. Perhaps you think no contact would be better than a conversation that makes your friend dwell on her situation, her depression, her misery. Or one that makes you dwell on yours.

Then you remember the Good Friend who kept reaching out to you. So you keep reaching out because you don’t want to be a Bad Friend.

But you may have to set boundaries for yourself for your own good. Can you manage to spend half an hour on the phone before you feel overwhelmed? Can you start the call ready with a terrible joke or a “You won’t believe what my husband did” story to break up the cascade of unhappiness when it threatens to overwhelm you too? Can you remember to use validating statements like, “I bet you were furious when your brother said that” or “I know, Marissa. I couldn’t have handled that either” or “You did what you could. Now it’s out of your hands.”?

Then, after the half hour (or 45 minutes or whatever), you can get off the phone, knowing you have done your best to be a Good Friend. Being a Good Friend doesn’t mean climbing down into the Pit of Despair with someone. And it doesn’t mean being a merry little ray of sunshine, even if you could. It’s a balancing act between understanding, sympathy, and self-preservation. If you let yourself burn out, you won’t have anything left to give, and that’s not going to help your friend.

I still keep reaching out, the way my friend Peggy did. I hope that listening, even half an hour at a time, does some good. And when I talk to other friends of mine, I try to remember to ask how their day was and what’s new in their life and have they seen any good movies and what is a mutual friend doing. I try to listen if they have something to share, good or bad, and I try not to overwhelm them or play whose-life-sucks-the-most. I try to be at least a Not-Bad Friend, even if I do have to lean on my friends, at times pretty heavily. And they do likewise, when they can.

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Thinkstock photo by hurricane hank

Originally published: January 11, 2017
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