When our loved ones are struggling, we tend to tell them that we’re there for them: “Let me know what you need.”
And that’s good and helpful. When you’re in a difficult position – for example, if you’re grieving, approaching a traumaversary, in a very depressed or anxious state, or dealing with a breakup – simply hearing those words can make you feel recognized, loved, and supported.
But often, we need something more than that.
Sometimes, we need tangible forms of support. We don’t just need to talk it out – we need someone to help us manage our responsibilities.
When I had a really bad bout of depression last year, I noticed how often folks said they’re there for me. People often asked me how they could help and what I needed.
And while I really appreciated that, I didn’t know how to answer that question. I wasn’t coping, but I couldn’t explain exactly what would help me cope. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I felt like that was the only way I could let my friends support me.
When you’re struggling, it’s hard to articulate exactly what you need. Sometimes, it’s difficult to even figure out what you need, let alone tell someone that you need it.
For many of us, it’s hard to ask for help even if we do know what we need. If your depression makes you feel worthless, it might also make you feel like you’re unworthy of help, or that you’re a burden to your loved ones.
One solution is to offer tangible suggestions instead of vague offers of support.
This also lets your loved one know what you, as their supporter, have the capacity to do. You might not be able to drive them to a doctor’s appointment, but you might be able to cook them a meal. You might not be able to cook, but you could wash their dishes and make sure their plants are watered.
So here are a few ideas on how to provide tangible, physical support to those who need it.
Of course, not all of these suggestions are accessible for everyone, nor will everyone need or want these forms of support. As in any case, it’s important to ask them if they want and need to be supported in this way.
But here’s a place to start.
1. Clean Their Place
If you’ve ever been overwhelmed by grief or depression, you’ll know that it’s difficult to keep up with day-to-day responsibilities while taking care of yourself.
While some folks channel their anxiety into doing chores and cleaning, others might be too sad and demotivated to do things like washing their dishes. Then the dishes pile up – and we end up feeling super overwhelmed.
You can help someone break the cycle by offering to help vacuum, do laundry, or neaten their room up.
If you don’t have a lot of time on your hands, but you’re able to pitch in with money instead, that’s great, too! There are lots of cleaning services that offer in-home visits for deep-cleaning (I recommend checking Groupon for deals – they almost always have them).
By helping them improve the state of their external environment, you can help them reach a calm mental state.
2. Cook Them Food
Ensuring that your friend has nourishing, yummy food to eat is a really practical way to show you care.
And if you don’t have the time (or, uh, the talent) to go to their house and whip up something Chopped-worthy, ordering something for them is always an option.
Just remember to ensure that the food doesn’t contain anything they’re allergic to, and make sure it complies with their religious, cultural, and health needs.
Bonus: For some people, there isn’t anything more relaxing than pulling up a rom-com on Netflix with a big bowl of pad Thai on their lap? If that sounds like something your friend would like, this could be a nice way to give your loved one some low-stress company (if they want it).
3. Run Errands for Them
If your loved one is feeling particularly anxious or depressed, going to get groceries or medicine can be hard. If you’re able to, making sure they have medicine and food in the house can be super helpful.
Some places even offer grocery delivery services, which means that you can support folks from afar, too!
You don’t have to live in the same city to stock their cabinets.
4. Offer Them a Lift
Being mentally ill and not having access to a car can be quite a struggle.
This is because public transportation and walking around isn’t always accessible – especially to physically disabled people. If you’re feeling particularly anxious, the thought of moving around in public and coming into contact with others can be really stressful.
If you have a car and you’re able to do so, offer to drive them around, even if it’s just for a day.
5. Help Them Stay Distracted
One of my go-to self-care methods – especially when I’m anxious – is distraction.
It can be really hard to distract yourself if it’s just you, alone, with your negative and self-deprecating thoughts. Having a friend around to take your mind off things can be useful.
Ask someone if they need you to distract them. Make tangible suggestions, like: “Hey! Would you like to watch a movie together? Let’s go on a walk! Let’s craft together. Let’s go visit the animal shelter. Let’s take a long drive. Let’s sing show tunes really loudly! Come over and pet my kitten!”
If you live far away from your friend, you still might be able to distract them by talking about off-topic, fun things over Skype or the phone. You can also still watch a movie with them – just stream it at the same time and text each other about it.
Let them know they’re welcome to talk about their emotional state, but don’t pressure them to do so. The point is to do something enjoyable that will – even momentarily – help them feel a little better.
6. Accompany Them to the Doctor or Psychologist
For a lot of us, getting medical care is anxiety-inducing. I definitely get a lump in my throat when I think about going to the doctor.
But sometimes, we really need it. We need to go to the doctor, or dentist, or psychologist, or physiotherapist, even if the thought makes us feel anxious or fatigued.
If your friend is struggling to go to appointments, you can offer to accompany them. Whether you simply offer to walk them or drive them to their appointment, or sit in the waiting room while they speak to a professional, it can really take the edge off.
7. Offer Them a Place to Stay
When someone’s struggling, it can be useful for them to have a change of scenery.
Even if you’re just down the road, your place could provide the change of scenery your friend needs. Perhaps you have a bed, couch, or mattress so that your friend can stay over for a little while – even if it’s just a weekend.
8. Help Them with Administrative Tasks
Admin – including paying bills, applying for leave, grants and stipends, and looking for a place to stay – can be super overwhelming for many of us. If they’ve just lost a loved one, they might have a particularly large list of tasks to do. Helping them figure it out can be a great form of support.
9. Make Them a Care Package
I really enjoy making care packages for people. This is another form of support that can be done even when you live far away from your loved one. Of course, this can be a bit costly and time-consuming, so not everyone is able to do this.
Depending on what they enjoy and what their circumstances are, you can fill a box with snacks, cozy socks, nailpolish or make-up, some nice bath bubbles, a book or magazine, tea, and so on.
It’s a cliché, but it’s the thought that counts here – not the amount of money you spend on it.
10. Offer to Babysit (Or Petsit or Housesit)
Childcare can be really hard to find if you lack the time and money – which, by the way, is why childcare is a feminist issue.
If your friend is also the parent or guardian of a child, they might need a hand keeping the child occupied while running errands, cleaning, cooking, doing admin, or catching up on sleep. In their state of emotional difficulty, it might be really helpful.
On the same note, if your friend is traveling – say, to a funeral – offering to housesit and petsit can be a huge help to them during a really stressful stage in their life.
It’s a struggle to know how to support someone that’s in a really dark, anxious, or depressed state, so hopefully these suggestions can give you some practical ideas.
Remember, it’s important for you to set realistic boundaries and practice self-care when you’re supporting someone, especially when they’re having a really rough time.
Spending emotional energy on your friends is admirable – but as the saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup, and you can’t take care of others unless you take care of yourself.
Sian Ferguson is a Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism and a full-time freelance writer based in South Africa. Her work has been featured on various sites, including Ravishly, MassRoots, Matador Network, and more. She’s particularly interested in writing about queer issues, misogyny, healing after sexual trauma and rape culture. You can follow her on Twitter @sianfergs and read her articles here.