Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

When Someone You Care About Is Depressed

By Miriam Schulman MappingIssues

Before you graduate from college, there's a good chance you will face a situation that's something like this:

Your roommate is having a hard time getting out of bed — ever. He used to be on an intramural soccer team and write for the school paper. Now he can barely make it to class.

He says he just doesn't see the point in anything.

Unfortunately, for some, college is a time when serious psychiatric illnesses emerge.

Nearly 30% of college students in a 2009 nationwide study by the American College Health Association reported feeling "so depressed that it was difficult to function" at some time in the previous year.

If you have a friend who is showing signs of depression, what should you do?

Aristotle, the go-to guy for any discussion on the ethics of friendship, said that the truest friends are "those who desire the good of their friends for the friends' sake."

Out of that definition, philosophers have argued that friendship creates special duties to work toward a friend's well-being. As David Annis put it in an influential article on friendship, "It isn't merely that it is nice for friends to help. . .but that we expect friends to act this way, are surprised if they don't, and frequently feel betrayed and not just harmed if they intentionally let us down."

When you're helping a depressed friend, your obligations flow from your relationship — you owe only what a friend can give. You're not a psychiatrist or a therapist, so no one expects you to fix your friend's illness. You can:

Express your concern. Describe the behavior that is setting off alarm bells.

Listen. Don't be falsely cheerful. Don't belittle your friend's feelings. Don't give too much advice.

Encourage your friend to go to a counselor. Offer to help set up the appointment or to go along.

None of this means that you must allow yourself to be consumed by your friend's problems. As Jenna Baddely points out in Psychology Today, a feature of illnesses such as depression can be rumination, the compulsion to go over and over the same worries.

It's reasonable — and maybe even beneficial to your friend — to set boundaries, to limit the time you talk about problems, and to suggest that the two of you participate in an activity other than commiseration.

Also, to stay true to your relationship, you should continue to expect reciprocity from your friend.

Baddely counsels, "People in the thick of a depression can be a bit self-centered, preoccupied with their own suffering. However, this is not an excuse for not honoring the friendship by at least trying to come through for another person." If the help and concern go only one way for a long time, the relationship flips from being a friendship into something more like therapy, which is not your role.

Even with professional therapy, clinical depression can be hard to overcome, and your friend may not get better right away. Then, what should you do?

According to David DeCosse, my colleague and director of campus ethics at The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, the answer may not lie in doing. "At that point," he says, "it's time to pivot from an ethics of action to an ethics of presence. We can accompany our friends. And we can hope that the unmistakable signal we send that we care for them will in time help reawaken in them a sense of their own value."

Miriam Schulman is assistant director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. The Center's Big Q Project offers a $100 Amazon gift certificate for the best student comment on ethical issues in the everyday lives of college students.

This article was originally published by USA Today College on April 29th, 2012

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