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So here it goes: Depression. Without being patronising, it’s a scary word and an even scarier situation. The main problem is not what help is available professionally and through the university, as there are systems and facilities in place (as discussed by Bryony Seager in the previous issue). The most pressing matter is how to help as a friend.
As someone who has previously struggled with depression, there’s a big step towards acknowledging you need help. It’s difficult not to write about this without sounding too dramatic, but the way I’d describe it would be to liken it to drowning. It’s impossible to quantify and hard to think rationally about anything. Knowing this, the most important piece of advice I can give to someone facing a friend in this predicament is to listen. It doesn’t matter if you can’t think of advice, because I think sometimes people believe that if you listen to someone’s problems, there’s an expectation to provide them with a life-changing, problem-solving epiphany at the end.
Honestly? The advice isn’t important. By no means let the lack of this put you off; in fact, it’s often irrelevant. If you lend an ear, in most cases you lend a lifeline. “Take it step by step” is true, and for a bystander makes perfect sense, but with depression you do not see what is potentially manageable and easily fixed, because the dark eclipses the light. Listening to them describe the colour of the darkness is far more useful than pointing out how bright the glow of the light is. The chances are that talking about that darkness means slowly thinking about the light.
Depression can be one of the hardest things to understand, because it is not associated with material possessions, lifestyle, even skill or talent. They bear no factor in the problem, so everything you know about a friend needs to be set aside so you can hear what they’re experiencing and who they are in that moment only. When you feel like the most insignificant person in the world, the last thing you care about is how it’s your birthday soon, because it feels like just you and the universe, and the moons of Saturn don’t care about your birthday. The best thing you can do is forget about everything else, even for ten minutes. Regardless of what their Facebook profile tells you about who they are, or your memory of them as the best drunk on the planet, make room for them solely at that point in time, whilst they’re speaking and telling you everything they are right now, not who they are at other times.
Listening to someone isn’t asking for the world. It doesn’t mean you’ve exchanged vows or signed a contract. It doesn’t mean that your problems are less important than theirs, or that you are alone in bearing their weight; it just means that you hear them. When you say, “I’m here if you need to talk” or a variant of that phrase, stay with them. Ask them what’s wrong. Mean it when you tell them it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, whether it’s 8am on Monday morning or 10pm on Christmas Eve, you will always be there. When they stand alone, stand with them. When they’re visibly upset, hold them. When they’re crumbling, act as scaffolding, and when they feel small, shrink the world until they feel big again.
Finally, when they start to hope again, smile with them. Laugh. Don’t let go. Depression is complicated, but listening is as simple as that.