Helping a friend with depression or anxiety

"I know I can't fix their problems; I'm leaving that to the doctors. But I can be a good friend" ... Shelly Horton
"I know I can't fix their problems; I'm leaving that to the doctors. But I can be a good friend" ... Shelly Horton 

A number of my friends have recently admitted to me they are suffering from depression or anxiety. I applauded them for being brave enough to tell me, and I felt compassion and concern for what they might be going through ... but I also felt terrified.

My lack of knowledge about mental illness had my stomach in knots. I was worried I would say the wrong thing and make them feel worse. I felt ill-equipped. I was embarrassed that I was worried their 'black dog' would jump to me. I'd change the subject to lighter conversation topics and in the end I started to avoid catch ups.

I felt ashamed of myself.

Then I realised that if a friend told me she had diabetes I wouldn't feel a smidge of difference towards her; I realised I was contributing to the stigma of mental illness. So I decided I had to get over my own anxious feelings and get informed.

According to the 2010 Wesley Report, Keeping Minds Well, 53 per cent of people in NSW will personally experience a mental health problem in their lives. With mental illness this prevalent, you most probably know someone who is suffering from depression or anxiety.

CEO of Beyond Blue, Kate Carnell, says one in four Australians experience anxiety, but few recognise they have it. Rates of anxiety have risen about 40 per cent in the past six years.

So while a handful of my friends were talking to me about their feelings I guess a whole lot more were suffering in silence.

Rev Dr Keith Garner, Wesley Mission CEO, says you can do a lot to help friends who appear to be suffering from depression and anxiety.

"The Wesley Report clearly shows that many sufferers, especially those under 25, do not seek early formal care, despite the fact that the sooner a sufferer acts, the more likely he or she is to recover, and recover quickly," he says.


"One of the reasons is the stigma, the uninformed community attitudes which make sufferers ashamed to admit the way they feel. We need people to feel free enough to access help and access it early. The report reveals that postponing treatment delays recovery."

Here are five tips on how to help your friends who are battling mental illness, according to Wesley Mission clinical psychologist, Marie-Lisa Boukarim.

1. Reading the signals.
Determine if your friend is having a brief period of difficulty or if it is something more serious. You may want to look for signs like avoiding social situations, sleep disruption, feeling down, crying frequently, increasing irritability, fearful of going out, or drinking excessively.

2. Time and place.
Choose a comfortable place and appropriate time to talk. Your friend may freely start to talk about what is going on for them, or you might want to start the conversation by saying something like "I've noticed you seem a little overwhelmed lately". Remember it can be difficult to talk about uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, and your friend may choose to not talk at that time - or at all. If this is the case, remain calm, respect their boundaries, and try not to take it personally.

3. Listen.
Your friend may not be seeking advice or solutions, but rather just someone to talk things through with. Listen carefully, be supportive, non-judgmental and ask open ended questions. This can help you better understand your friend's thoughts and feelings and show that you care.

4. Seek help.
Encourage your friend to seek help from a doctor or counsellor. There are also telephone counselling services available like Lifeline (13 11 14) or the Beyond Blue information line (1300 22 46 36).

5. Take care of yourself.
Sometimes when you're concerned about a friend you can feel alone and uncertain about how to approach them. Keep engaged in pleasurable activities, relaxation exercises and seek advice from a doctor or counsellor.

So I started with baby steps: texting my friends to check in with them, arranging for a quick coffee or suggesting a walk (Bourkarim says exercise is a positive activity to do together).

Slowly I raised the topic. I listened and confessed I hadn't handled it well. It seemed by admitting my vulnerabilities they, too, had a sense of relief.

I now know I can't fix their problems; I'm leaving that to the doctors. But I can be a good friend. I've let them know I love them enough to stand beside them and hold their hand on this journey. And I know they would do the same for me.

This recent ad by BeyondBlue, featuring actor Ben Mendelsohn playing the part of anxiety, aims to help the public understand this mental illness.