If you want to help someone with depression (major depressive disorder), but you’re not sure what to do, here are 8 things to try.
1. Know the signs of depression
It’s important to know the signs of depression so that you can recognize it in family and friends when it occurs. Be on the lookout for people who:
- Have stopped caring. People with depression often appear to stop caring about activities, even ones they usually enjoy. If someone you know has lost interest in work and hobbies and has become withdrawn they may have depression.
- Have developed a negative or bleak outlook. Becoming moody, grumpy, short-tempered, easily irritated and critical of things can be signs of depression. Feeling overwhelmed and helpless are other signs to watch out for.
- Have changed their sleeping patterns. Sleeping more or less than usual can be signs of depression.
- Have become forgetful and disorganized. Becoming forgetful, disorganized and finding it difficult to make decisions may also accompany the other signs of depression.
- Have changed their eating habits. Like for sleeping, people with depression may start eating more or less than usual, leading to weight gain or loss.
- Have started drinking more or abusing drugs. Self-medicating with prescription medications such as sleeping pills is also something to watch out for.
- Complain about feeling constantly tired or having aches and pains. Feeling tired and having ongoing issues with headaches, stomachaches and other aches and pains are all things that may indicate depression.
2. Talk to the person with depression
Talking about depression can be difficult. It can be hard to know what to say. It’s also common for people to worry about the reaction they’ll get if they do suggest to a family member or friend that they may have depression.
Starting the conversation about depression...
- Be available, gentle, yet persistent. People with depression often become withdrawn and isolated. It may take time for them to open up. Express your concerns and let them know you’re willing to help, talk and listen.
- Be a good listener. You don’t need to fix all the problems or provide all the solutions.
- Encourage them to talk about how they are feeling.
- Let them know you care, offer help and hope.
Some conversation starters:
Next you could try saying:
Things to avoid saying...
There are some things you should avoid saying when talking about depression, such as:
- “We all go through hard times.”
- “It’s all in your head.”
- “Try and cheer up.”
- “Just snap out of it.”
- “Don’t you feel better by now.”
- “You’ve got so much to live for, why would you want to die?”
3. Provide reassurance and express acceptance
It’s important for someone with depression to hear that you care for them, that with treatment they can feel better and that it’s ok to have depression.
Remind them that lots of people have depression and that it’s nothing to be ashamed of - they are not alone.
Tell them that you care for them and want to help.
Remember to reassure them that help is available, including prescription medications, talk therapies and making lifestyle changes. Reassure them that they can feel better again.
4. Encourage them to get help
Encourage your friend or family member with depression to seek help. They may struggle to manage this on their own. If they are reluctant to seek help for depression, suggest making an appointment for a routine check-up or offer to help by making an appointment for them and helping them to attend.
Encourage them to make a list of their symptoms to take along with them to their appointment. You can offer to help by suggesting they include some of the signs and symptoms of depression that you may have noticed.
5. Support their treatment plan
It can be difficult to seek help and stick to a treatment plan if you have depression. Supporting the treatment plan your family member or friend has been recommended to follow is important.
You can help support their efforts to get better by:
- Encouraging them to stick to the plan and asking how you can help them.
- Helping them to make and attend appointments.
- Having a positive outlook and encouraging them to join you in eating well, getting out of the house and exercising.
- Providing assistance to carry out tasks they are finding difficult.
6. Watch for suicide
Depression is a major risk factor for suicide, so it's important to watch out for the signs.
Suicide warning signs include:
- Talking about suicide, dying, self-harm or wanting to die. Someone thinking about suicide might use phrases such as “I’d be better off dead” and “I wish I hadn’t been born”.
- Searching for ways to kill themselves. Seeking access to pills, guns, knifes or other objects that could be used to commit suicide.
- Talking, writing about or posting online about death and suicide. Having an unusual focus or preoccupation with violence, dying and death.
- Talking about having no purpose, feeling hopeless and trapped.
- Talking about being a burden. Having feelings of shame, guilt, worthlessness and self-loathing.
- Talking about suffering from unbearable pain.
- Getting affairs in order and saying goodbye.
- Changes in behavior including:
- Increased use of alcohol and drugs
- Being agitated, anxious or reckless
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Becoming withdrawn and isolated
- Talking about revenge and being showing signs of rage
- Extreme mood swings
- Sudden sense of calm
Talking openly about thoughts of suicide can help save a life
If you are worried that someone is suicidal then ask them. Talking about suicide will not put ideas in their head.
- Ask directly about whether they’ve had suicidal thoughts. “Have you thought about hurting yourself recently?” “Do you ever feel so awful that you think about suicide?”
- Ask directly about what they are planning. “Do you have a plan to take your life or kill yourself?” “Have you thought about how you would kill yourself?” Have your thought about when you would kill yourself - today, tomorrow, in a week or month?” If they have made a specific plan they need help straight away. Respond quickly if a suicide attempt seems imminent.
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). The Lifeline provides 24/7 free and confidential support for people in distress.
Call 911 (or the emergency number in your country) or go to the nearest emergency room.
- Offer help and support. Ask them if they would like to talk and remind them that you are there for them. Do not pressure them to talk - it may take time or they may feel more comfortable talking with someone else.
- Listen, take them seriously and let them know you care. “I’m here for you.”
- Remember not to judge. Be supportive, stay calm and offer hope.
- Don’t agree to keeping secrets about a suicide plan or suicidal thoughts.
- Help them to get help from professionals and other friends and family who may be able to help. Remember to follow through on offers of help.
7. Be patient
Remember that depression is an illness and it will likely take some time before your friend or family member feels better. They may have good days and bad days. Be patient and avoid showing signs of frustration and anger.
8. Remember to look after yourself too
Helping someone with depression can be difficult, especially if they are reluctant to recognize that they have depression or accept help. Remember to take the time to look after your own mental health. Take time out, eat well, exercise and get enough rest.
- National Depression Initiative. Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency. Help Someone. Available at: https://depression.org.nz/help-someone/. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Help Guide. Helping Someone with Depression. September 2020. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/depression/helping-someone-with-depression.htm. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). How Do You Talk to Your Loved One Suffering With Depression? January 11, 2019. Available at: https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-do-you-talk-your-loved-one-suffering. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion (ODPHP). US Department of Health and Human Sciences. Depression: Conversation starters.October 15, 2020. Available at: https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/everyday-healthy-living/mental-health-and-relationships/depression-conversation-starters. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Anxiety & Depression Association of America (ADAA). Depression. Available at: https://adaa.org/understanding-anxiety/depression. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Help Guide. Suicide Prevention. November 2020. Available at: https://www.helpguide.org/articles/suicide-prevention/suicide-prevention.htm. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Ministry of Health. If you’re worried someone may be suicidal. April 19, 2021. Available at: https://www.health.govt.nz/your-health/conditions-and-treatments/mental-health/preventing-suicide/if-youre-worried-someone-may-be-suicidal. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Home page. Available at: https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. [Accessed May 14, 2021].
- Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE). Warning Signs of Suicide. Available at: https://save.org/about-suicide/warning-signs-risk-factors-protective-factors/. [Accessed May 14, 2021].