How to ‘talk’ to a depressed colleague

Carole*, a barrister friend of mine, spoke to me recently about two sad email threads she had received. Joanna*, an instructing solicitor, had fractured multiple bones in a car accident. Andrew*, a member of her chambers, was suffering severe depression and was self-harming. 

The email that came about Joanna offered her home address and gave the name of the hospital, with an encouragement to send cards. Messages that followed suggested that people were immediately sending their thoughts and best wishes directly to Joanna.

The chain about Andrew was much more reserved. Carole had been to see him at home and he mentioned how much he wanted to hear from people. But few people seemed to be contacting him, with only one consistently keeping in touch. She passed the request on in a round-robin email. The responses were guarded and careful. Would it not be better if Carole coordinated messages? Might it be better to speak to his partner, given he was off work? Should contact come from the chambers’ formal welfare officer?

The difference in approach mirrored my own varied experiences when off work, first with depression and then a broken elbow.

There is an obvious concern that arises from the unconscious stigma attached to mental ill-health. However, I think that it is an accidental after-effect of a genuine desire to do the right thing. It is a fear that colleagues contacting someone off with stress will negate the beneficial effects of sick leave. Or there is a fear of saying something that is inadequate to the situation, or even that makes the illness worse. Let me be crystal clear: kind, thoughtful contact from colleagues is nothing but helpful when you have depression.

Make no expectations, take no responsibility for their recovery and do not forget about them. Send that message today. I promise you, it can be literally lifesaving

Depression makes you feel like nothing. Worthless. Pointless. A useless colleague, parent, friend. A useless human being. Not justifying your presence on Earth. It manifests in guilt at being off work with no physical symptoms. A lack of regular contact from colleagues feeds the flawed thinking that depression causes. They resent me for leaving them with extra work. They do not even notice I am not there.

A text that says simply, ‘Hi! Just to say I was thinking of you. Sending hugs,’ says far more than the words you type. To a depressed person it says: you are not forgotten. You are important enough for me to contact you. You are worth my time and effort. It breaks up the crushing, lonely days with a little ray of light which pushes back the edges of the dark fear and banishes the guilt. Repeated messages, sustained over time – say: ‘You matter every day. I really mean it. I am serious. You count to me.’

When I was ill, the one colleague who reliably sent messages left on a long journey. While away, she sent me an email. For months, as I battled self-loathing, I would think: she contacted me from Brazil! Nothing she said or did before or after told me she cared more than that tiny act, because it was genuine and from the heart. Even now that message sustains me.

If you have a colleague who is absent with a depression- or stress-related illness, here are some tips for how to contact them.

1. Unless they ask for phone calls, use text, WhatsApp or other asynchronous methods. These can be read and reread but there is no pressure to interact if the recipient does not feel able to do so.

2. Personal email addresses are fine, in fact it may be safer to avoid your colleague’s work email. That way welcome messages can be read without seeing more burdensome messages, or triggering work emails.

3. Do not take on any responsibility to try to fix or cheer them up. Well-meaning though they are, platitudes such as, ‘Look on the bright side’, or ‘Everyone goes though bad times,’ do not help. The exception to this is if you have gone through a similar experience and can give concrete information about how you felt and what changed as you improved. Even then, it is not necessary to feel you have to pass that information on if it is not asked for.

4. Please do send simple words like, ‘I was just thinking of you. Thought I’d say hi.’ ‘Just wanted you to know you are important and we miss you. Take the time you need, we’ll always be here for you.’

5. Do not exclude people from social activities, but also do not assume they are well enough to come. Send something like: ‘Just to let you know if you would like to come to Joe’s do on Friday, I’ll be going. If you need a lift or to leave early, I’d be happy to give it. No worries if the time isn’t right. xx’. That lets them know they need not walk into a room alone and that they are still wanted and thought of as part of the group.

6. Offer to meet in person. ‘I’d love to see you if you feel up to a coffee? Is there a time that’s good for you?’ If they say yes, don’t put them off. A date in two months’ time is no help. Do not be offended if you do not get a response. Wait a little while and make it clear the offer is open-ended.

7. Communicate little and often. You do not need to have a lot of time. Just do not go away.

8. Do not assume other people have it covered or are better placed to make the contact. Even if that is true, your voice and thoughts count.

9. Ask what they need from you.

10. Assuming no allergies, flowers never make things worse.

Simply put, treat a depressed person as you would someone with a fractured femur: make no expectations, take no responsibility for their recovery, and do not forget about them. Send that message today. I promise you, it can be literally life-saving.

District Judge Helen Conway

District Judge Helen Conway

Helen Conway is a district judge at Liverpool County Court

* names and identifying details changed.