When loved ones struggle

June , 2021 by Marina Andreoli-Laubscher

When a friend or family member takes emotional strain, we’re not always sure how to help. The ones in the trenches can’t always give us answers- so it’s a great idea to establish strong ‘foundations’ for effective helping, guided by social science professionals.

Firstly, it’s helpful to illustrate what help looks like. It comes in many different forms, from different social touchpoints, and always puts the best interest of the person at the centre. According to Gerard Egan, Professor Emeritus of Organization Development and Psychology, writes that every person can step into an informal role as a helper. In fact, most people grappling with problems in living seek help, if at all, from informal sources. This means we are all relied on, and rely on others, to get through troubled times.

Here are some common thoughts ‘helpers’ may experience, and tips on how to deal with these concerns:

I just don’t know what to say”

That’s ok, it’s most helpful to listen. World-renowned clinical psychologist Dr. Caroline Leaf explains, “You are not giving your friend a solution to all their issues (although you can have some suggestions available when the time is right and if you feel like they are appropriate); rather you are listening to help them process their pain and to not feel alone and out of control.” Compassion is key, as Leaf continues “ it’s your compassion that validates their experiences by acknowledging that their pain is real. Doing this actually changes the resilience in the brain (through a genetic switch), which can help that person see their problems in a new light and start sorting through their issues.” 

Quick Talk tips:
-Resist the urge to bring up similar examples from your life. If you do, try to frame it as ‘I may not be right, but…’
-Ask questions to better understand.
-Avoid defensive language and remain calm if they respond negatively.
-Respect if your friend doesn’t want to talk, and make space for silence.
-Don’t fear true emotions or thoughts. A quick change of subject or an immediate placation, like  ‘it will be ok’ statements, signal you are not prepared for this level of intimacy, and it can be interpreted that you won’t stick around through bad times.
Photo by Vickie Intili from Pexels

“I guess they just need space”

Those in hard times may pull away, and it can seem best to let them. It’s true that people suffering from some consecutive bad days or weeks may simply require some time away from others in order to get through. However, people who have more severe depressive experiences tend to show a continued baseline of being hopeless, worthless and exhausted in day-to-day life. These people need the assurance of friends more than they display. A helpful approach to being there for them is to not expect them to come out into very public, stimulating environments. For someone who struggles to get out of bed in the morning, it is impossible to imagine throwing on their best clothes and chatting loudly over music at a bar. While a change of scenery can be good, think about an environment that will be a gentle adjustment for them. It’s also important to keep in mind that when people struggle, they are sensitive towards feeling as though they need to put on a happy face, which is why they may choose to withdraw in the first place.

I’m drained when I’m with them”

Gail Saltz, MD, psychiatrist, says, “Identification and empathy can be great qualities in a friend but can also make dealing with someone who is depressed very difficult. Some people over-identify with a depressed friend and this can make them feel drawn into a depressive state of their own.” If this is you, know that you are not the only source of help that they need- their state of mind is not dependent on you! Establish your own boundaries while intentionally showing them that you care. Here’s an illustration for boundaries: They’re not a 10m high wall, not an alligator-filled moat- they’re a sturdy, nicely painted fence, providing you with a safe space to love yourself and your neighbours from a safe distance. Examples of this in practice could be to send them a care package, a letter talking about what you appreciate about them. Something creative that can fill your cup and theirs.

They’re not even trying to get better”

Remember, you can’t ‘fix’ someone. When we continue to see our loved one struggle with their situation, even though we’ve really tried to ‘solve’ something through advice or giving other practical assistance, we can become frustrated, forming a misguided belief that the person wants to worry, wants to be down, wants to see the negative side of things.
One may think that if their support was helping, their friend wouldn’t still be depressed, and this could lead to abandoning the friendship completely. In these situations, it’s best to remember that advice is not actually all that helpful. What is, is to listen without judgment, and just to be there for them.

They don’t like my help”

People suffering from depressive seasons may express resentment towards others, or reject their support. Dr Leaf explains, “People can be difficult when they are depressed, but we should not take this personally, which often happens when one friend is depressed and tends to lash out at the other friend. This person may not be aware that what they are doing is wrong, or what is going on inside them, or they may not even care,” she says. “Or they may even be asking for help, but in a really roundabout and confusing way.” This is a challenging situation, but try to remember that these words are most likely the depression talking, and they are not your friend’s real feelings.

Recognize any of these thoughts? You’re not alone. Thankfully, we are wired for community. And results show that support really does help. 

The real benefits of friendship

Connection can physically help people journey through their emotional valley. Dr. Leaf says, “A strong friendship can help heal someone’s thinking habits and improve how the brain functions, helping them gain clarity into their situation, building up mental resilience and encouraging them to face and overcome what is causing them distress.” She also explains that studies show that helping others can also increase our own healing by up to 63%.

For this to be mutually beneficial, don’t overwhelm yourself. If possible, enlist the help of other people in your shared support circle, or recommend to help them seek professional help.


Egan, G., & Reese, R. J. (2018). The Skilled Helper: A Problem-Management and Opportunity-Development Approach to Helping – Standalone Book (HSE 123 Interviewing Techniques) (11th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Teo AR, Choi H, Valenstein M. Social relationships and depression: ten-year follow-up from a nationally representative study. PLoS One. 2013 Apr 30;8(4):e62396. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0062396. PMID: 23646128; PMCID: PMC3640036.

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