As the pandemic creeps into its third year, many friendships are looking a little worse for wear: Group chats that were once bubbling with conversation have gone mostly silent. Zoom wine nights lost their luster mere months into the pandemic. And meeting up with friends is a lot more complicated than it was back in 2019, since we’ve all formulated our own unique ideas about safety and risk.
Given all that, it’s hard to notice if you or a friend are keeping your distance purely because of the pandemic or because of a deeper reason, like depression. Social withdrawal has always been a common sign of depression, but our need to socially distance made it harder to pick up on, said Zainab Delawalla, a clinical psychologist in Atlanta.
Depression might mean you dread the monthly dinner date with friends that you used to love. That’s because depression “hinders one’s ability to anticipate pleasure,” Delawalla said.
“It also overestimates the amount of effort something might take: Even routine tasks like replying to text messages can seem herculean,” she explained.
These two factors combined ― overestimating effort and underestimating potential for enjoyment ― can manifest as social withdrawal, as well as a general withdrawal from all other self-care activities, the psychologist said.
Of course, withdrawing from friends isn’t always a telltale sign of depression: Letting friends fall by the wayside can originate from many things, said Tameka Wade Brewington, a therapist and the owner of Concierge Therapy in North Carolina. Maybe you and your friend have grown apart or one of you has too full a plate at home or at work.
It’s pretty telling, though, if you’re withdrawing and also noticing some of the symptoms of depression, which Wade Brewington said include:
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities, such as sex, hobbies or sports
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so that even small tasks take extra effort
Any one of those conditions even on its own could compel a person to self-isolate.
“When you’re depressed, you may believe that your friend doesn’t have time or doesn’t want to deal with what you’re going through,” she said. “That, in turn, keeps the person from engaging in socializing with friends.”
Studies show just how beneficial it can be to your mental health to spend time with friends: In 2020, researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital released a study showing that social connection is the strongest protective factor for depression. (According to the study, confiding in others appears to reduce the risk of depression by 24%.)
Not only is social isolation often a sign of depression, continued social isolation can make depression worse. It’s a vicious cycle ― and one worth breaking before it gets any worse. Below, therapists share what to do if you think you’ve pushed your friends away because of depression, as well as what you can do if your friend is experiencing depression.
What to do if you think that you’ve been pushing friends away because you’re depressed
It’s not easy to be open about your mental health struggles, but remember: You don’t have to share every last detail if the conversation makes you feel uncomfortable. Be as honest as you can when you can, said Meghan Watson, a resident therapist at Alkeme Health, a platform for mental health and wellness that focuses especially on the Black community.
You don’t have to share with all your friends, either, of course. The key is to identify which friendships are the most important to you and the ones you most want to sustain, Watson said.
Then, Watson said to tell those top-tier friends something like, “I’ve been struggling with reaching out these days. My mood hasn’t been the best, and I don’t mean to shut you out.”
If they ask what they can do to help, try to think about what might make a concrete difference to your mood rather than forcing yourself into an interaction that might make you feel worse. Start small, Watson said. Maybe schedule a time to talk on the phone or take a walk together.
“If you need space, it’s OK to say that, too” Watson said. “Real friends will understand once they have the right context. You don’t have to commit to a full social calendar, if that feels too overwhelming.”
Try not to make predictions about how you might feel when you go out or whether the effort will be “worth it,” the therapist said. Just be in the moment, then, when you’re back home on your own, take stock of how the catch-up session made you feel.
Obviously, though, hanging out with those closest to you isn’t a solve-all. Friends can offer invaluable, you-specific support, but if you’re depressed, you’ll likely need assistance from a mental health professional to understand the root cause of your depression.
“Get an evaluation to determine if you are depressed,” Wade Brewington said. “Schedule a consultation with a mental health professional and if you’re not comfortable with that, you can make an appointment with a primary care doctor, and they can complete a pen-and-paper assessment to let you know if you need to see a mental health professional.”
Of course, therapy can be expensive, even if you have insurance. Here are a few suggestions for cutting costs, even just a little bit.
How to be supportive of a friend with depression
If you have a friend who’s struggling with depression and they share that with you, don’t try to guess or Google what they might need.
“Ask them what they need or want from you,” said Rachel Kazez, a therapist and the founder of All Along, a group that helps people across the U.S. find therapy.
If they’ve experienced lows like this before, think back to how you’ve supported them in the past.
“Do they like quiet time together? Distraction? Offers to do a favor? Compliments? Let them know that you are their friend in whatever mood they’re in,” Kazez said.
Remember, though, it’s important not to offer solutions or quick fixes, Wade Brewington said. They may appreciate your therapist’s recommendations or hearing about your co-worker’s experience with antidepressants and the Calm app, but they also might just need a sounding board or someone who’ll normalize their feelings.
Get in the habit of asking, “Do you want comfort or solutions?” when people you care about share a personal problem with you.
If your friend hasn’t come to you with a problem but you notice that they’ve been withdrawing and you suspect that depression may be the culprit, try not to be accusatory or judgmental, Delawalla said. The last thing they need is a super blunt text that says something like, “I always call to make plans but you never reach out to me,” or “What’s going on with you lately?”
Instead, just try to make it as easy as possible for your friend to say “yes” to a social engagement.
“Try to suggest low-effort activities ― getting takeout versus going out to a hip new restaurant, for instance,” Delawalla said. “Something like that can help ease the anxiety related to social contact when you’re depressed.”
And if they tell you there’s nothing you can really do for them at the moment, remember: Validation and consideration go a long way in friendship. (Also, don’t underestimate the power of sending memes and funny videos. It’s low-effort for both of you ― all they have to do is respond with a laughing-face emoji or use the “haha” button ― and it could cheer them up in the moment.)
If there’s really nothing specific you can do for your friend, ask them if it’s OK to check in every now and again, Watson said.
“Sometimes when people are depressed, they don’t feel safe asking for help, and when they distance themselves, struggle to find the words,” she said. “Having regular touch points is a good way of building consistency in a low-pressure environment.”
Friendships ebb and flow throughout our lives, but these days, it may feel like all they do is ebb. Friend Zone is a HuffPost series that features reflections on the nature of our friendships and what we can do to maintain and strengthen them — plus, how to know when it’s time to let them go.