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  • Aditi Surana

How to care for a depressed friend

This has been a tough & disturbing week for all of us. Sushant Singh Rajput ended his life, leaving all of us shocked & heartbroken. Did you also feel that numbness in your bones? That slight trembling sensation in your knees as you imagined what he would have gone through before concluding? You and I know that feeling. We have all felt it in some or the other manner. His death raised many questions. Questions that we could ignore, until now.

  1. What Sushant could have done to deal with his depression?

  2. What his family and friends could have done differently to help him?

We already have stigma around mental health and on top of that the focus is always “to fix” the broken people. We keep looking at what a depressed or anxious person can do? How can he or she ask for help? Why shouldn't they feel the way they do? In today’s episode I wish to focus only on the second question and talk about how you and I can take responsibility. Mental illness is an epidemic. How long are we going to wait before we accept it? What else has to happen before we stop pretending and start accepting all our broken, mutilated stories? How many Sushants do we have to lose, before we wake up and do something about it?

Exactly 3 months ago, my team and I were reading about the lockdown and its effect on mental health in different parts of the world and the rising numbers of people suffering from anxiety, depression and suicides. India was yet to announce the lockdown but we knew it was inevitable. My very close friend & colleague Rasshi, looked at me with concern in her eyes and said,

‘We can’t let this happen. We cannot sit idle and do nothing!’

We called for a team meeting, picked brains hours and decided to play our part as mental front line warriors. We created two social initiatives. One was a free anti anxiety journaling workshop on Instagram and second was free one on one session with people suffering from any mental illness. We were willing to do whatever it took. The only problem was we didn’t know what we were walking into. We were unaware that we were opening floodgates. It’s been heartbreaking, moving and very disturbing to witness the intensity of pain that people are dealing with. I must say that it has transformed me as a person.

My mother who is staying with me in the lockdown, saw us work relentlessly to help more than 700 people go through the journaling workshop and 324 people one on one sessions. Aai - my mom, heard some moving stories of people going through amazing transformations.

An anxious son who struggled internally while nursing his old, sick parents started feeling calmer, a 60 year old woman went off sleeping pills after ages, many people reaching out to parents and family members after many years and many more stories of embracing calmness.

That day after hearing Sushant’s news, we were all trying to get our heads around it. My mom walked in my office studio & said something that shook me from within. She said ‘Do you think your journaling workshop would have helped Sushant? Someone should have told him about it.” and before I could reply she continued, ‘but it is not easy to help your children or anyone even if you want to. They think you are imposing your ideas and then they never speak about it again.’

What Aai said in passing, played on my mind. What could have Sushant’s family and friends done? Do you think they knew he needed help? Did they know how to help? The last few months have pushed many people over the edge. We couldn’t help Sushant. But we all have people that we love and care about, that can be helped. Let's talk about what all you and I can do for any friend, family member or even a colleague, before it is too late.

  • How to know if someone is suffering through an emotional and mental challenge?

  • The second really important question - What not to do?

  • How to ‘be there’ for that person no matter what?

How to know if someone is suffering through an emotional and mental challenge?

It is genuinely tough to spot someone with mental illness. It’s not obvious to the person who is suffering. Even if they become aware, most of their efforts are on dealing with it privately, without letting anyone know. On top of that, no two people experience the same symptoms. They are different for each and every individual.

My heart sinks when I speak with someone with ‘asymptomatic’ mental illness. No one really knows that this person is suffering. They remain functional in most parts of their life and keep doing the right things. Not dropping their garb. Not asking for help and suffering alone. Replying every single ‘how are you?’ with a rehearsed ‘I am perfectly fine’ response, along with a measured smile that won’t give away the truth.

We must learn to pick up signs. We know how our closed ones behave, eat, sleep, talk. If you see any discrepancy then investigate without intruding, blaming or concluding. Will discuss how to do that in a minute. Some people eat more & some lose their appetite. Some can't get out of the bed and some can’t sleep at all. Some get hyperactive and others become sluggish and listless.

If you think that your friend is overthinking, being over sensitive or just overreacting, then let me tell you that most of these illnesses are psychological as well as physiological. Your friend is also dealing with incomprehensible changes in his or her brain.

Imagine this situation. One day you were cooking something in the kitchen and you touched a hot pan by mistake. You rushed to the fridge and got some ice out or quickly applied toothpaste on the burn making sure it doesn’t leave any mark. Now you have a burning sensation on your hand but no burnt mark. Next thing you know is your best friend decides to visit you. She comes and hugs you and holds your hand lovingly as she has missed you terribly in the lockdown. Instead of reciprocating her love with a smile, you scream. She is all baffled and hurt by your behaviour. As she can't see any burning mark, what if she starts telling you things like:

  • It's all in your head. Is it? Noooo. For your mentally ill friend also this is applicable. Depression or anxiety is not their imagination. They are not making up some excuses or stories.

  • Don't pay attention. The burn will bother you more if you keep thinking about it! Really? Stop trivialising my pain! You may say.

  • Let it go! - how? How exactly one can let go of their most burning emotion without resolving it!

  • But you don't look depressed! What do you expect? What does it even mean? I heard this a lot after my divorce. Some people said this to my face. ‘Divorce ho gaya. Lagata nahi hain!!!’ This comment of ‘but you don’t look depressed’ is equally bizarre!

  • Think positive! It could be worse. Does it relieve your burning sensation if your friend says think positive. See you could have burnt your whole hand, body or house.

  • Just snap out of it. Can you just snap out of your physical pain? Just snap out of it!! People say this because they are not encouraged to speak about their painful emotions.

  • This too shall pass. Though eventually it all will but saying this to a friend who just can’t deal with their emotions is pressuring.

  • Giving advice without any expertise - Do yoga, mediation or exercise. It will divert your mind.

So please don't do any of it if you really care about the person who is suffering.

It's time we change this.

Sit down and genuinely ask yourself this question. If you really want to be there for your friend then are you ready for it? It is tough to be a caregiver to a mentally ill person as they are mostly sad, irritable, cranky, sarcastic, lethargic, withdrawn. But if you love then learn how to love. If you meant when you said ‘I will be there for you’ then this is a time to do that.

These are the few things you require to do:

  • Safe environment - Culturally we do not acknowledge mental illness. We make fun of people. We think they are weak, feeble, over sensitive or stupid. You might have not directly abused or insulted your friend but do you mock other people? Do you make fun of people if they make mistakes? Do you trivialize celebrities when they go through similar issues? If the answer to any one these questions is yes then please know that your friend won't feel safe to speak with you.

  • Do you have the tools? - when your only tool is a hammer, you look at every problem as a nail. Emotions are delicate, layered and complicated. As you can’t open a door lock with a bottle opener, you can not deal with one person’s emotions like another person’s emotions. Observe, learn, see what works for the person. Sorry there are no shortcuts here. You will have to do the work.

  • Stop trying to FIX them. Your friend is sick, not flawed or broken. The best way to help is to be there without any judgement. It doesn't matter what you think or what you feel. It's not about you. It is about them. Repeat after me. My only and only job here is to help my friend suffer less. You can give advice or solutions later, but now at this point in time - My only and only job here is to help my friend suffer less.

  • Compassionate listening - Asking the following question will help the situation -

  1. I know that I don't understand what you are going through. Can you help me understand it?

  2. What can I do to make you feel better?

  3. I’m sorry that you are experiencing it. I’m here for you.

  • Keep showing up. Do not expect them to respond. Care without probing, nagging or enforcing. Give them control of the situation. Be around.

  1. Can I bring you dinner this week?

  2. Would you like to take a walk with me?

  3. Lets watch a movie together.

  • You can't fake it. You either judge or you don’t. You are either pregnant or you are not. You can’t be slightly pregnant and you can't be slightly judgemental. Know that you have no clue. You're not the saviour. You are just a gardener. You can only create a nurturing environment. But do that regularly. The plant will take its own time to grow. You can't make it grow.

  • Therapy - some mental illnesses need therapy & some need medication. Be a support system for your friend to go through the treatment. Say that I am not the right person to answer this question.

  • Keep your mental balance - it is tiresome to be an invisible support. Do not do it at the cost of your mental balance. Make sure that you journal or do graphotherapy to keep your energy high.

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