Trigger warning for discussion of depression.
(Note: Through this piece, I referenced the depressed person as “a man” and “he,” because this is part of a series about men with depression. Much of my advice, however, applies to depressed people of all genders.)
The most important thing to remember about helping a man with depression is that you cannot fix a depressed man with the power of your love. You are not Superman, and you cannot save them single-handedly. Depression is a disease, and love works about as well in fixing depression as it does in fixing cancer. In the end, a depressed man has to find his own path to recovery. You can help him along the way, but the primary task is his (and perhaps that of a trained medical professional).
The first principle of medicine is to do no harm. That means, in the case of depression, refrain from saying stupid shit. For instance, do not tell a man with depression to man up. Don’t tell him to deal with it. Don’t say he’s making it up. Don’t say that your cat died once and you were really sad, so you understand what he’s going through. Don’t tell him that men shouldn’t cry. Don’t tell a man who’s saying that he feels like a failure that he is a failure. Actually, it’s probably a good idea to refrain from criticizing people currently suffering from depression period. Don’t give advice about how your Aunt Mabel tried St. John’s Wort and now she feels fine, or about how you go for a jog whenever you’re depressed and it makes you feel a lot better.
The masculine gender role often makes it very difficult for men to express their emotions, especially depression. Therefore, if a man is trusting you with information about his depression, it’s your responsibility to not reinforce the shame he may have around it. If your response to a man’s depression is “fag,” you should probably be aware that most competent mental health professionals do not regard your strategy as likely to lead to a full and complete recovery.
It is also important to remember that every depressed man is different. The techniques that are very helpful to one depressed man may only make another feel worse. If you find out a friend, family member or romantic partner has a history of depression, you might want to ask when they aren’t in a depressive episode what signs will help you recognize when he’s depressed and what support he’d like you to provide.
There are a few concrete steps you can take to provide support for a person with depression. Depressed people often lose the ability to deal with basic necessities of life, such as running errands, doing laundry or even eating food. Helping a person with the tasks of daily life, even a little bit, can make depression easier to deal with. Something as simple as an occasional home-cooked meal can make a difference. However, it is also important not to start running the depressed person’s life for them; that’s not fair to you or them, and gets very close to “maybe I can fix him!” behavior.
Depressed people often withdraw from social interactions. This is really bad, because lack of social support is one of the factors that is best correlated with suicide for both genders and men are notoriously more likely than women to not have a strong social network. Therefore, you might want to put some effort into making sure that a depressed man you know has social interaction on a regular basis, such as by taking him out to dinner or the movies or Magic: the Gathering tournaments. Don’t avoid the topic of depression uncomfortably, but try to maintain your normal friendship as much as possible.
When a depressed man opens up about his feelings, the most important thing you can do is listen. The knowledge that someone cares can often make a huge difference in a depressed man’s quality of life. Express your love and support for him, in whatever way is most appropriate for your relationship. Gently remind him that not everything is bad and there is hope. Depression is characterized by inaccurate thought processes, such as “I’m a bad person” or “everyone hates me”; if he says something like this, calmly tell him that that’s not true and give evidence if possible (“no one hates you, we invited you to a party last week”). Don’t shame him if he cries or otherwise expresses gender non-normative behavior.
However, do not attempt to get a depressed man to talk to you about his depression. He may feel shame around his depression or be repressing his emotions or simply not trust you. It’s his right to have boundaries around who he wants to share his emotions and thoughts with. Simply be there, and he may open up in time.
Encourage depressed men to see a therapist. Men often don’t receive physical health care, much less mental health care; there’s still a stigma around seeing a therapist. You might want to ask if he’s considered seeing a therapist. If he says that he’s strong enough that he doesn’t need a therapist, you might want to reframe the situation as being about his having the strength to go. If he says that he’s not mentally ill and it’s not serious, so he doesn’t need it, you might want to say that all situations in which someone is suffering from serious mental distress are serious.
Know the warning signs of suicide. Encourage him to seek professional help and remind him that you do not want him to die; don’t be afraid to bring up the topic of suicide. If a man is showing multiple warning signs, you may want to remove or lock up all guns and medications that are not currently in use (you’d be surprised at the stuff you can OD on– Tylenol is a nasty death) and call a mental health professional for advice. If you can and the situation seems serious, wait with him or have someone you trust waiting with him.
Make sure to take care of yourself. Trying to help a depressed man can take a lot out of you. Maintain a support network yourself and, if possible, have multiple friends cooperating in helping him. Take time for self-care: spend time with friends, watch a movie, write poetry, be a gender warrior on the Internet, whatever. Also, just because a man is depressed does not mean he has the right to treat you badly. If you have to, for the sake of your mental health, it is okay to retreat from a friendship or relationship with a depressed man.