Depression - she won't talk about it. What can I do?
I was recently asked by a friend about what she could do, as her best friend who suffers with depression, just doesn’t want to talk about it. This is tough and in my experience, often the case. People living with depression (especially if it is severe) do not want to open up and reveal what it’s like for them. They feel so exhausted, dark, fed up, hopeless and isolated that they really are frightened of the intensity of what they feel and where it may lead. It’s terrifying to live with depression and many fantastic campaigns are encouraging people to talk. And in principle, I am in full support. But we must remember that getting a conversation started like that won’t be easy, or acceptable to the other. In this blog I hope to share some ideas of how to cope with such a situation.
The key to starting a conversation with someone who doesn’t want to talk is to acknowledge that you understand they don’t want to talk. That you're not interested in burdening them with having to explain themselves and their feelings and thoughts to you. You are interested in understanding and empathising with what they feel, not why they feel it.
You can accept their way of being in an open, non-judgemental and empathic way so that they can experience you as someone who cares for them, for whom they matter. This may help with their feeling of alienation and fear.
If they don’t want to talk about it, it is probably because they feel there is no hope and no point in talking about. Spend some time with them, in silence, letting them know you unconditionally love them, accept them in their choice to feel silent.
You could let them know that you care about them, that you will listen without judgement, that you are accepting that they may feel alone but that they are not. You are here.
Just one chat is not going to be enough. You may need to reiterate this again and again until they are ready to hear it. It takes time and remember, you're being an amazing friend.
You could ask them if they would be interested in a walk with you outside either in the park, or by a beach, or in the woods... whatever is near and convenient for you both. You could just be together in silence, listening to birds, shuffling leaves about, wading through mud, looking at the sky. Sing a tune? Nature walks do wonders for those struggling with depression. There is something meaningful about the timelessness and natural beauty of nature and being.
Do they have a bit of music which would mean something to them? Play it.
Are they into art in some way? Would they draw you a painting or a drawing which depicts their journey in life? Could you do the same?
Do they like to write? You could write together. Each sharing your stories of what it’s like to live.
Do they like planting and gardening? You could invite them to join you in some gardening? Watching a garden grown, planting seeds is therapeutic, connects us with the wonder of being and grounds in life’s simple purposes. They may appreciate the opportunity to throw themselves into an experience like that, rather than having to delve into their feelings.
Do they bake? Could you get involved in baking something together? There is something healing about making yummy, tasty food. Another experience to throw themselves into.
If none of this seems relevant you could ask something like:
“What is it like for you to be you?”
We are obsessed with explanations, and answers. Forget about it. Focus on what they are saying. Not why they are saying. If you start asking "why are you saying that?" or "why are you feeling that?", then they:
(a) have to explain to you, which becomes about you and the intention here is to make it all about them.
(b) have to defend themselves, because in most cases you may feel they ought to feel differently which again makes it about you, rather than them.
Often, people handling depression have had all sorts of treatments, therapies to correct their thinking and adapt their behaviours and are still alone and in a dark place. In my experience, silent internalised rage becomes their norm and destructive thoughts and behaviours happen.
You could help them find a therapist who is willing to listen, rather than to fix and correct. Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is not a panacea and humanistic oriented therapies do help. But really, the only deciding factor in therapy is the quality of the relationship the therapist can forge with the client. So their orientation and technique is much less relevant. So you could look at the Counselling Directory in your local area and help them find a therapist they feel they can trust, and who will help them heal the traumas (often hidden from their consciousness) of their history and of their here and now.
I hope you have found something useful in my blog. I’d love to hear from you if you want to share further ideas and thoughts with me.
Counselling Directory is not responsible for the articles published by members. The views expressed are those of the member who wrote the article.
Dr Chloe Paidoussis Mitchell is a BPS associate fellow and expert in trauma and loss. Her work in this field has been published and she has more than 15 years experience in clinical practice helping people overcome traumatic life events; adapting to depression, anxiety and loss. Chloe also is a senior lecturer in counselling psychology.