Use these simple strategies to reconnect.

Karen Pallarito
November 28, 2017

When your friend is depressed and retreating from life, how do you draw her out of her shell without nudging her into an uncomfortable situation?

It’s important to recognize that depression is extremely common and, like any illness, deserves your compassion. One in six people will experience depression sometime in his or her life, according to the American Psychiatric Association.

Depression can also be terribly isolating, so anything you can do to help your friend stay engaged is a step in the right direction, explains Tracy Cummings, MD, a staff psychiatrist and medical director at the Lindner Center of Hope, an affiliate of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center. “Even just reaching out and listening could make such a difference,” she says.

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Here are a few ways you can help your friend get back in the game of life.

Be present

If your BFF suddenly doesn't want to go out anymore or seems listless, you know something’s not right. Depression can show up in many different ways: Your friend may appear sad, anxious, or lacking in energy. Things you used to do together no longer interest her.

A lot of times, people who are depressed don’t want to burden someone else with their feelings. But it’s important to let them know that you care and you’re willing to be part of the solution, Dr. Cummings explains. “Your job isn’t to fix them, but to be present.”

Talk about it

As uncomfortable as it may be to openly discuss someone’s depression, that person’s symptoms are just as real as the crushing pain of a migraine or broken leg. Using respectful language and offering support if someone is having trouble can go a long way toward eliminating the stigma of depression.

“I think it’s going to be important for that person to know that you’re noticing, that you care, that you want to help," Dr. Cummings adds. Talking about how they're feeling shows "you want to check in on them,” she says.

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Say, 'Join me!'

People tend to isolate when they’re depressed, and that can worsen their depression, Dr. Cummings explains. That’s why engaging your friend or family member in some kind of social interaction or activity–whether that’s catching a funny movie or grabbing coffee together–can really help.

Here’s how to overcome her reluctance: Instead of asking, “Do you want to do this with me?” say, “I’d really like for you to come with me.”

Dr. Cummings offers one caveat: Since alcohol is a depressant, going out for a drink isn’t the best activity for someone who’s already feeling down.

Volunteer together

People who are depressed sometimes feel worthless, Dr. Cummings says, and “volunteering can really turn that around.” Beyond feeding one’s sense of accomplishment, it can also open someone’s eyes to things happening in the world around them.

There are tons of volunteer opportunities in every community. Choose something you can do together to help your friend avoid isolation and withdrawal.

Get moving

Your friend may have little inclination to roll off the couch or crawl out of bed if she’s depressed. You can help by encouraging her to be more active. We’re not talking about training for a half-marathon (unless she happens to be an avid runner): Any kind of physical activity, even going for a walk, can make a big difference, says Dr. Cummings.

The reason? Exercise boosts endorphins, those feel-good chemicals manufactured in the brain and other parts of the nervous system in response to pain and stress. The resulting changes in a person’s brain chemistry may alleviate some depression symptoms, Dr. Cummings explains.

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Cook a healthy meal

Depression can zap a person’s appetite or trigger carb cravings. Neither is very beneficial to her mood. So why not prepare a healthy meal together? Increasingly, research shows a relationship between diet and mental health. One study found a modified Mediterranean diet significantly helped ease people’s depression symptoms.

Some mental health professionals even use cooking or baking to help patients quiet their negative thinking and boost social interaction.

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Provide pleasant distractions

Your friend may not feel as mentally sharp as usual if she’s struggling with depression, Dr. Cummings notes. So nix trivia night; don’t put her in a pressure-filled situation where she feels like she’s letting people down. Do engage her in a fun activity that will divert her mind from negative thoughts.

Maybe that's a concert or lecture, or a walk through a museum. It can be something formal, like taking a class together, Dr. Cummings says, or casual, like scrapbooking or a friendly card game.