If you have a family member or friend coping with depression, or even if you suspect that someone you love might be, then you know just how challenging the situation can be. You want to help in any way that you can, but you also don’t want to risk alienating the person and have them push you away. It’s a situation that can often leave people feeling helpless and wondering what to do.
However, the support of family and loved ones is key in the fight against depression, notes the Mayo Clinic. Depression is a real illness, and for someone to be successful in fighting the disease, it helps to have good people on your side.
One thing that can make depression challenging, notes the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), is that it can impact different people in different ways. Some people may have seasonal depression that affects them only during the winter months, while others may have persistent depressive disorder, which is long-lasting but may have symptoms that vary from time to time. Still others may experience major depressive disorder, which greatly impacts every facet of their life.
Regardless of the nature of your loved one’s depression, there are still a number of strategies you can use to help them. Here’s what the experts recommend:
1. Recognize the signs
Step number one in being there for your loved one is to know what to look for. Depression can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but it often has some common warning signs that you may notice in your loved one, including the following:
- Withdrawal from pleasurable activities
- The appearance of sadness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Fatigue or lack of energy
- Unexpected anger, frustration and irritability
- Reduced appetite
- Physical problems, such as headaches or back pain
- Difficulty concentrating, thinking or talking
- Noticeable slowness
- Anxiety, restlessness or irritability
- Difficulty sleeping, or sleeping too much
- Talk of death or suicide
2. Know what to say
It’s not always easy to talk to someone with depression, notes the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Say the wrong thing, and you risk alienating the person and having them withdraw even further.
With that in mind, experts recommend acknowledging that the person's struggle is real, and then offering them hope in an encouraging manner. It may also help a person to be reminded that many people struggle with depression. Say, for instance: “You’re not alone in this fight. A lot of people get better when they get treatment for their depression.”
Most of all, be supportive and let them know that you’re there to help them in any way that you can. Simply asking how they feel, telling them that you’re there to listen and offering to help them find a counselor or a therapist are all positive ways that you can talk to a loved one with depression.
3. Offer gentle encouragement
If you think a person needs professional help that they’re not getting, this can certainly be a challenging conversation. It’s best to have this conversation one on one rather than in a public setting and to present the issue in a manner that’s not too confrontational. Asking them about it - “Have you ever considered how therapy could help?” - is almost always better than demanding it - “You need to go to therapy”. You can also offer to help them get started by finding a therapist for them. Sometimes people with depression need a gentle nudge in the right direction.
4. Don’t push too hard
That being said, you can also go too far in your conversations with someone who's depressed. Usually your words or action come from a place of love, as you want nothing more than for the person to be happy and healthy. But you're taking it too far if you find yourself saying things like, “Snap out of it” or “What’s wrong with you?" and getting frustrated. People with depression have a real illness, notes the NIMH, and aren’t able to “snap out of it.” While it’s good to be a guiding light or a helping hand to your friend or loved one with depression, you need to realize that many people need to find answers on their own, as well. Pushing too hard may very well cause them to withdraw from you.
5. Be available
As the support person for a loved one with depression, your role doesn’t always have to be that of an interventionist. Sometimes just being there and being a friend is all it takes. Offer to go on a walk, watch some TV, listen to music or just talk. In many cases, that’s just what the person needs, without constantly being reminded that they have a problem that needs to be addressed.
As time goes on, you may be able to use these same strategies to help reintroduce the person to the things they love, notes the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). For example, it might be hard for a depressed person to go to a party, but you could offer a dinner or meet-up with one of your very close friends as an alternative. Little steps like this can often be helpful in a person’s journey.
6. Don’t smother them
It’s understandable to be concerned about the safety of your friend or loved one with depression. At times, you may be hesitant to even leave them alone. However, people with depression need their space, just like everyone else. As long as you’re certain the individual’s safety isn’t in danger, then it’s best to honor their wishes and give them alone time.
Sometimes, it’s also possible to be present without smothering the person. A loved one with depression may want to just be with you without talking for awhile, notes the ADAA, and that’s okay, too. Just being there can make a big difference.
7. Recognize when things are getting worse
If you’re really close to the person with depression, then you’ll likely be aware when things are getting worse. Of course, the Mayo Clinic notes that this can be difficult to identify since depression varies so much from person to person, but the main keys are to be observant and look for existing symptoms that are worsening or new symptoms that arise. If the person is in a worse mood than usual or withdraws even more than they typically do, for example, then it might be a good time to talk to them about treatment.
8. Be aware of suicide warning signs
Nobody wants to think about it, but the reality is that a friend with depression is at an increased risk for suicide. As a good friend, make sure you're aware of the signs and symptoms of suicidal thoughts. These can include:
- Risky behavior, such as reckless driving or alcohol and drug abuse
- Extreme social withdrawal
- Drastic mood swings or personality changes
- Giving away belongings and saying goodbye to people
- Feelings of hopelessness or despair
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Acquiring guns, pills or other dangerous items
- Talking outwardly about death, self harm or suicide
The bottom line
Depression is certainly a challenging diagnosis, both for the person with depression and the people who love them. However, by being supportive, helpful and hopeful in all the right ways, you can be a conduit for bringing the person to a better state of mental health. There’s no question that there will be bumps along the road, but a steady, compassionate hand can go a long way toward helping your friend or loved one with their struggle.
- Depression: Supporting a family member or friend, Mayo Clinic, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression/art-20045943
- Depression: What You Need to Know, NIMH, 2019. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression-what-you-need-to-know/index.shtml
- Depression: Conversation Starters, US Department of Health and Human Services, 2019. https://healthfinder.gov/healthtopics/category/everyday-healthy-living/mental-health-and-relationship/depression-conversation-starters
- How to Support Someone Who Is Struggling with Depression, Resources to Recover, 2019. https://www.rtor.org/2019/07/19/how-to-support-someone-with-depression/
- How Do You Talk to Your Loved One Suffering with Depression? ADAA, 2019. https://adaa.org/learn-from-us/from-the-experts/blog-posts/consumer/how-do-you-talk-your-loved-one-suffering