6 ways to help a friend with depression or anxiety

If you want to be there for someone who’s dealing with depression or anxiety, you’re already being a great friend. It can be hard to know exactly how to help someone with depression or anxiety, and what to say to someone who's having a rough time. Remember that each person is different, and while these tips are a guide, when helping a friend with depression or anxiety, it’s important to talk with your friend about what they feel they need.

1. Learn about what your friend is going through

Not totally sure what depression or anxiety are, or how to help a friend with depression or anxiety? A really great first step in helping your friend is to find out more about depression, anxiety or anything else your friend is going through – this will help you to better understand what's happening and how they feel.

My friends try to learn more about what I’m experiencing, especially asking for and going to sources of information I recommend.

hellofriend (Forums User)

How do you know if your friend is going through a tough time?

Sometimes it’s hard to know the difference between the regular ups and downs of life, and mental health concerns like depression and anxiety. Someone experiencing mental health concerns might feel ashamed, and worried about how their friends might react if they talk about it.

Not everyone experiences depression or anxiety in the same way, and symptoms can vary; however, there are changes in the way a person going through a tough time acts that you can look out for. If your friend is experiencing depression, they might:

  • seem down or tearful a lot of the time, or cranky more often

  • stay up really late or sleep in a lot, or have problems with sleep

  • miss a lot of school, work or their regular activities

  • miss hangouts or often cancel at the last minute

  • eat more or less than usual

  • drink alcohol or take drugs more than usual

  • talk about feeling empty, tired or worthless

  • seem more pessimistic and hopeless, and like they have less energy in general.

Learn more about what depression is and to recognise the signs and symptoms.

If your friend is experiencing anxiety, they might:

  • be obsessed with details, such as being a perfectionist or wanting to plan things out thoroughly

  • have difficulty making decisions

  • avoid new people, situations or unfamiliar places

  • have trouble keeping to schedules or plans

  • seem disinterested, forgetful, distracted or scattered

  • have digestive issues

  • have a need to reassurance – about how you feel, whether plans make sense, triple checking times

  • have difficulty sleeping

Learn more about what anxiety is and how to recognise the symptoms.

2. Be open and welcoming, and listen

It can be hard to know what to say to a depressed or anxious friend. If your friend feels like talking, ask them how they’re going.

What to say when someone is depressed or anxious

You could start the conversation by asking questions such as: ‘It seems like things have been hard for you lately. What’s on your mind?’ and: ‘What can I do to help?’

Something I’ve learnt is to ask sincere, open ended questions like, ‘How does this feel?’ So the other person can feel supported, comforted and safe, rather than being told what to do.

ayrc_1904 (Forums User)

When you want to bring up a sensitive issue with a friend, try to choose a time and place when you’re both comfortable, relaxed and there’s some privacy. Don’t push them if they don’t want to talk, and be there for them if they become upset. You might not have an answer or a solution, but just being there to listen can be super helpful.

It might be difficult for your friend to accept your help – continue to check in with them and let them know that you care about them, and that you’re there for them if they need you.

3. Take their feelings seriously

If someone is living with a mental health concern, it isn’t possible for them just to ‘snap out of it’, ‘cheer up’ or ‘forget about it’. Acknowledge that what's happening must be difficult to handle; don't tell them that their feelings are weird or unfounded.

Try not to approach your friend like they’re a patient or someone who needs to be fixed...this might make them feel embarrassed and belittled, and can make them close themselves off to you.

Anzelmo (Forums User)

If you’re not sure how to help someone with depression or anxiety, ask them. You could also offer them some options and let them choose what suits them best. For example, you could offer to listen and let them express their thoughts, or just to hang out, without serious conversation.

Try to be caring, compassionate and curious, and let them know that they matter to you and you are taking them seriously.

4. Help them to find support

Your friend might not be aware of what professional support options are available, or they may be unsure of how to get support. Even if they know about support options, it can be daunting to see a health professional.

You can offer support by encouraging your friend to speak to a health professional or an adult they trust. You could offer to join them for the conversation if they want, or even ask if they’d like you to book the appointment if it’s with a professional. A GP can organise a mental health care plan for them if needed. This means that your friend will get a referral to a psychologist or other professional. They’ll also get Medicare-subsidised sessions – getting help doesn’t have to mean they have to fork out hundreds of dollars.

Not everyone is ready to see somebody face-to-face. You could recommend hotlines or online chat-based helplines. The ReachOut NextStep tool can also provide tailored support options so they can make their own plan. Here are some support services they could use, and some more information about getting professional support for depression and anxiety.

If they’re not able to seek help on their own, ask for their permission to talk to an adult they trust on their behalf. If they refuse, and you’re still really concerned, consider talking to an adult you trust, such as a teacher, parent or school counsellor.

5. Continue supporting them and respond to emergencies

On a bad day, your friend might not want to leave their room. If they say something like ‘I’m going to cancel my appointment today’, encourage them to follow through with the appointment.

Whether or not your friend has decided to get professional help, it’s important that they know they can get support from you, or other friends and family.

If you think your friend may be in danger or at risk of hurting themselves or someone else, seek help from a trusted adult or emergency mental health service immediately. Call 000 to reach emergency services and also tell someone you trust.

In more serious cases, it’s important to let an older/more responsible adult know what’s going on. You don’t have to be perfect all the time and making mistakes are inevitable and a good thing as we can learn from them.

Anzelmo (Forums User)

6. Celebrate their successes

When you're going through a tough time, it can be hard to recognise and acknowledge your own achievements. It's also hard to see your own progress and improvement. When your friend takes a step towards confronting their fears or improving their wellbeing, congratulate them and do something fun together. Help them feel proud of themselves.

Something that has really helped me in the past is to make sure to do fun things with my friend, rather than making every interaction about trying to solve what I’m going through.

WheresMySquishy (Forums User)

Take care of yourself!

It can be pretty scary and intense to see someone you care about experiencing depression or anxiety. You can be there for your friend, but it’s equally important to do things that keep you well. By taking care of yourself, you’ll be in a better place mentally and physically, and this allows you to better support the people around you.

Remember to do the following to make sure your own wellbeing is looked after:

  • Monitor your mood. You might be really worried about your friend, but it's important that you also monitor your own mood and stress levels. This could include rating your mood out of ten each day, to track how you're doing.

  • Don't give up the things you enjoy. Always make sure you've got the time to do your favourite things.

  • Make time to relax. Relaxation is great for helping you to unwind and deal with stress.

  • Set boundaries. You aren’t going to be able to be there for your friend all of the time. Set some limits around what you’re willing, and not willing, to do. For example, you might decide not to take any phone calls in the middle of the night, or not to miss social events just because your friend isn’t up to going.

  • Ask for support. It’s important that you’re getting your own emotional support. Talk to people you trust about how you’re feeling.

What can I do now?

  • Set aside some regular time to look after yourself.

  • Read more about depression or anxiety.