When a Colleague Exhibits Signs of Depression

Last Updated Apr 21, 2007 12:53 PM EDT

Four times over the past two weeks, I have discovered one of my female colleagues crying in the bathroom. When I tried to console her, she told me everything was fine and asked me not to say anything. I'm worried about her, but we're friends and I don't want to violate her trust by reporting her. Where's the line?

If she's at the point where she's sneaking off to the bathroom for a cry, your colleague may have been suffering from a building depression for several months, according to Dr. Mike Godard, a family practice physician in Roxboro, North Carolina. Regardless of what she tells you, the real "friend" thing to do is get her some help.

As the tragic events at Virginia Tech earlier this week have demonstrated, warning signs must be heeded. It's actually fortunate that you discovered your colleague's symptoms before they go too far, because she's probably at the point where she can recognize that she needs some help.

"Depression can often begin subconsciously," according to Godard. "She may withdraw from doing normal things, but find a way to rationalize that behavior with excuses that seem valid. But if it spills into the workplace, she will probably see that she needs help because others are witnessing the problem."

Convincing her that it's time to get help may not be so easy, as her reluctance to admit the problem demonstrates. This is probably the time to involve human resources professionals, who are trained to handle such matters. You can try to speak to her and convince her to seek counseling, but if she resists you need to report her to the proper person in your company and let them handle the delicate work. She's in a fragile state, but don't let this sway you from the proper course of action. "The chance that she'll snap out of it on her own is slim," says Godard. "Most people need some counseling and medication because it's generally a biochemical problem." 

Your colleague needs to realize that what she's going through is not that abnormal. Depression strikes people in all walks of life, and often unexpectedly. There's a shame associated with admitting to the problem, but as a friend you need to help her realize that she's not going to go through this alone and that there are people who care about her and want to help.

If you're still troubled by the idea that you will "violate her trust" by reporting her, you can also have a hypothetical conversation with a human resources professional and explain the situation. Because of the position she's placed you in, you may also be in the need of some counseling before you feel comfortable taking action.

Your colleague may feel a twinge of betrayal when she is confronted, but in the long run she will hopefully receive the assistance she needs and realize that what you did went above and beyond the typical coworker relationship. In the end, she'll realize how lucky she is to have a "friend" like you.

Have a workplace-ethics dilemma? Ask it here, or email wherestheline@gmail.com.
  • William Baker

    William Baker is a freelance writer living in Cambridge, MA. His work has appeared in Popular Science, the Boston Globe Magazine, the New York Daily News, Boston Magazine, The Weekly Dig and a bunch of other places (including Field & Stream, though he doesn't hunt and can't really fish). He is a regular contributor to the Boston Globe, where he writes the weekly column, "Meeting the Minds." He holds a master's degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, and is at work on his first book.