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According to the organisation Mind, in Britain alone, one in four people will suffer from mental health problems each year. One of the most common problems is depression, and being stuck at university, far from home, can intensify these feelings. If you know someone that suffers from depression, or if you believe that you do, you may often feel at a loss for what to say or how to act around others. Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever help, but life doesn’t have to be that difficult.
If they haven’t already, you should encourage any struggling friends to contact their doctor. The university has a great service for those with mental health issues and you can complete a self-referral online, meaning you don’t even have to face that terrifying first appointment with a stranger, telling them that you’re struggling with daily life. This is possibly the hardest step for those suffering, but it’s one of the best they can take. Don’t force your friend to speak up, but tell them it will be worthwhile if they do. The fact they feel comfortable speaking to you tells you they want some help.
The workload at university can be a struggle at the best of times, but can seem nigh impossible for those fighting depression as well. If you know someone who’s unable to complete their work or is getting extremely stressed out due to their mental health, be there for them. Offer them a session where you both do work together. Things appear much less daunting when you have a friend to help, and just being in someone’s company can really help with depression, even though the illness will be telling you not to be around people at all. Remember that the department will offer a mitigating circumstances form for those with illnesses affecting their work, which can be a lifesaver for people with depression.
Outside academic work, just be there for someone. Invite them for a coffee, head over to Subway for lunch together or have a quiet drink in a bar. One of the biggest problems with depression is it convinces you that no-one is there for you, that nobody cares and that they would rather you stay cooped up in your room alone. You don’t have to be a therapist, but you can prove that person’s depression wrong with just the simplest of gestures. Show them that you enjoy their company, even when they don’t feel like conversing much.
When you do talk to someone with depression, don’t focus your conversation on the illness – people don’t want their lives to revolve around it and may not want to discuss it at all. By all means, ask someone how they are and allow them to talk about any problems if they feel like it, but remember that people with depression are still people. Talk about how your lecturer drones on or does that funny thing with their eyebrows, about the television show you saw last night – strike up a normal conversation. Knowing that ‘normal’ things go on is a great distraction for depression. It gives people something else to think about for a change.
Sometimes, with depression, people don’t feel like they can hold up a conversation, and they can often seem distant and uncaring towards you. That absolutely is not the case; know that people still care, they’re just fighting a long and tiresome battle in their minds and don’t always have energy left to engage. You don’t have to fill in the conversation for those moments. Sit in silence and do some work around people, invite them over to watch a rubbish film with you, or make them their favourite meal. Company means more than anything in those low moments and sufferers will greatly appreciate you trying, even if they don’t always show it.
If you don’t have a mental health condition, then understanding it can be incredibly difficult and keep in mind that nobody expects you to all the time. What is important to remember is that, just like physical illnesses, you can’t will depression away. Those with a mental health problem need rest, just like those with a broken leg. Reminding someone of the reasons why they should be happy won’t work and will often make them feel guilty, so try not to tell people to just smile and be grateful for their life.
Remember, your personal mental health matters too. If you’re starting to suffer because you’re spending every waking hour helping your depressed friend, then it’s completely okay to take a step back and look after yourself. Let your friend know that you’re just a text or phone call away, that you’re just down the road if they need you. But also remind them that there are plenty of people willing to listen. On campus, we have Nightline, which operates through the night and provides people with an ear for their problems. More generally, there are groups like Samaritans, where people are trained to deal with those with depression and other problems. Remember that no-one has to be alone.