First of all, you don’t want to start with, “You seem to be depressed, and I’m wondering if I can be of help to you.” Many friends, even close friends, don’t want to be singled out as being depressed. Here is a suggested opening to put a person in a safe place. “I’d like to have a conversation with you because I care for you and want what is best for you. We have been friends for XX years and have spent much time together (recount some of the good times you have had). I want us to deepen the relationship and trust we have with each other.”
After this opening, it’s time to get into a safe dialogue.
“I have a concern that you’re struggling with something right now. For example, (give examples such as…) you seem more quiet than usual and appear to be less of a social butterfly. You also have talked to me about your having trouble sleeping at night and not having much of an appetite. Just yesterday, we started having a conversation, and before it was completed, you had an anxious look on your face and said you needed to get home.” (You get the picture – real examples, the more specific, the better.)
Now comes handing the ball over to the other person. “Does what I’m saying making sense, or is there something I have said or done to make you feel uncomfortable around me?”
Wait for a response. One response could be denial; if so, don’t push it. Just say something like, “OK, I just wanted to visit with you about my concerns.” Then talk about something else. If the symptoms persist, you could make note of other red flags you have observed and talk to her in about three weeks.
If on the other hand, the person opens up, listen without making suggestions. At the end, ask if there is something you can do to help. In this way, you are not intruding on a very private expression of feelings until you know your friend is desirous of your being her friend and confidant. In future meetings, you may find that she would like suggestions, or you could offer a suggestion in a particular area of her life and see how she responds. Some people just want a listener. Some people desperately want help. And there are infinite possibilities in between.
In all situations, make sure you keep your friend in a comfortable place and not push her into something she may not want to do. Especially, don’t pretend to know how to deal with depression if you don’t have a clue. Being a person who has gone through depression myself, I maintain that only a person who has been depressed knows what it is really like to be depressed. But you can always listen and be a friend. People who are depressed need friends who accept them just as they are.