How can you help a loved one with depression?
Depression is a difficult condition to live with, but it is also highly treatable. If a friend has depression, simply listening to them and encouraging them to take positive action can make a big difference. Likewise, having a supportive friend or loved one can help someone with depression feel understood.
People should also bear in mind that helping a friend or relative with depression can feel overwhelming, so it is also essential for them to look after their own mental health while helping others.
In this article, we look at how to understand someone else's depression and the ways people can help a loved one to get help and begin to feel better.
Understanding a loved one's depression
Both environmental and sociological factors can play a part in depression.
In the popular imagination, many people feel that depression is just sadness or even a state that people can just "snap out of."
The truth is that depression is a complex mental health condition. It involves genetics, hormones, health, nutrition, and neurotransmitters.
Environmental and sociological factors, such as a history of trauma, a lack of social support, a recent loss, or exposure to racism or sexism, can all play a part in depression.
While depression can feel profoundly isolating, it is also widespread. The National Institute of Mental Health report that as many as 7.1% of adults in the United States may experience depression in a given year.
Because it is so common, people who have not experienced depression themselves may dismiss it as having feelings of sadness or low motivation. However, it is crutial to note that depression can be debilitating, making it difficult to work, have relationships, or enjoy daily life.
Every person's experience of depression is different. For some, it may feel physical, causing headaches or muscle pain. Others may express their pain as anger towards others, which can cause relationship conflict that intensifies their depression.
To understand what a loved one may be feeling, people can read up about the symptoms of depression. Gaining this knowledge will help them recognize when a person is feeling low.
People can look out for the following symptoms of depression in a loved one:
- appearing or saying that they feel sad, hopeless, or unmotivated
- stopping activities that they did enjoy, such as hobbies and seeing friends
- being unable to complete daily routines, even when doing so causes problems
- having a negative bias that affects their judgment, such as believing there is no point in showing up to work
- having insomnia or excessive sleepiness
- feeling excessive guilt or worthlessness
- seeming to have trouble concentrating or thinking
- complaining of aches and pains
- gaining or losing weight or changing their eating habits
- having suicidal thoughts or actions
How to help
There is no single strategy to help an individual with depression. Knowing the needs and personality of the person with depression can help guide a supportive approach.
A person who thrives on social contact or fears isolation may get temporary relief from spending time with loved ones. If those loved ones are judgmental or unkind, however, the visit may make their symptoms worse.
Below are some ways people can try to help a friend or loved one with depression.
Listen without judgment
One of the most powerful things a person can do is to listen to a loved one and let them air their emotions. A person should avoid telling the individual what to feel or how to solve their problems.
Helping is not about giving advice, as a person may not know the right advice to give unless they have mental health training. Just listening without judgment can make the person of concern feel understood and less alone.
Listening to challenging emotions can also bring up negative feelings in the listener, which can affect their mental health as well.
If helping a friend or loved one with depression is affecting the person's own health, they may benefit from talking to someone about these emotions.
Talking about or naming depression does not make it worse. Furthermore, mental health professionals tend to agree that directly talking about suicide does not increase someone's risk of suicide either.
Providing an outlet for difficult emotions may help your loved one feel less overwhelmed.
Reach out to them
Actively reaching out to someone who may be experiencing depression is usually going to be helpful.
People with depression may feel more shame and guilt than others and are less likely to reach out for help themselves because of their negative emotions.
Calling, visiting, or simply texting them will let them know that someone is thinking about them and may encourage them to engage.
Encourage positive action
Encouraging positive action, such as going for a short walk, may help a loved one cope with their depression symptoms.
It is a good idea to ask someone what they find helps them feel better. This might be watching a favorite movie, going for a short walk, exercising, or cooking a healthful meal. Try encouraging them to do these things, even if they feel like it is impossible. Offering to do something with them may be most effective.
It can be helpful to suggest strategies that might provide the person with a diversion. This approach can also offer the individual an outlet to talk or just be with someone who cares about them. An example of this is offering to take them to dinner or a movie or planning an afternoon together.
If someone with depression feels unable to do these things, let them know that taking it easy is okay, too. The idea is to support the loved one.
Learn more about depression
People can read blogs, books, websites, message boards, and other resources to learn more about what it feels like to have depression. These information platforms can also explain the various treatments, therapy methods, and other factors that may be helpful.
Researching the subject can enable someone to understand better what their loved one is going through.
If a person has experienced depression themselves, they should not assume that their experiences are the same as their loved ones. Each person with depression faces their own journey with challenges that will be unique to them.
Help them get help
It can be a good idea to encourage the person experiencing depression to seek professional help.
Find ways to make this help more accessible for them, such as by offering to contact an insurance provider to determine how much coverage they have for therapy or offering to drive them to their appointment.
If someone is unsure where to get help, the National Institute of Mental Health provide resources and links where people can find support for mental health and crises. Otherwise, people can contact their or their loved one's healthcare professional for information.
Offering support with activities that the individual finds overwhelming or unbearable is a good strategy. An example is offering to take their kids for an hour or two, so they can get some rest or go to therapy. If they feel overwhelmed by daily tasks, someone can ask about helping with laundry or hiring a cleaner.
It is simple to reassure the person that depression is treatable in most cases, even if it feels unbearable. One strategy is to reassure them that they are not alone and that their depression should start to get better with time and treatment.
Look after yourself
Caring for someone with depression can feel overwhelming and be exhausting. It is important to remember that an individual cannot cure somebody else's depression. Also, their loved one's depression is not their fault, and they can only do so much.
To avoid burnout, people should make sure they create boundaries and look after their own mental well-being. This can include seeking counseling or talking to friends about what they are experiencing, taking time to themselves, and engaging in relaxation methods.
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What should people avoid saying?
People with depression tend towards feeling guilty, worthless, and ashamed. They cannot pull themselves out of these feelings. Using "tough love" strategies are not effective and may serve only to intensify feelings of worthlessness and shame.
In most cases, when talking to someone with depression, people should try to avoid the following:
- asking them to "snap out of it"
- telling them that they are wrong about their feelings
- saying that their problems are not that bad
- telling third parties about their feelings
- threatening to cut contact with them because of their emotions
- suggesting depression is a choice, or that the right food or lifestyle change is a cure
- attempting to thrust religious experiences or practices on them
- ignoring or dismissing thoughts of suicide
- insisting you know how they feel
- telling them to stop being negative
- saying that depression will go away on its own
Suicide warning signs
People with depression may be more at risk of suicide.
People may also worry about the link between depression and suicide. Most people with depression will not die by suicide, though they may have a higher risk. This risk is partly related to the severity of the depression.
There is no single type of person who commits suicide. People of all ages, genders, and walks of life can feel suicidal and act on those feelings. An estimated 2% of people who seek treatment for depression will die by suicide. This is higher in males than in females.
It is important for a person to look out for warning signs that a loved one is experiencing suicidal thoughts or actions.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, warning signs that a person may be having suicidal thoughts include:
- talking about killing themselves, feeling hopeless or a burden, or being in unbearable pain
- increasing their use of alcohol or drugs
- looking for ways to end their lives, such as internet searches
- withdrawing from usual activities or isolating themselves
- sleeping too much or too little
- visiting or calling friends or family to say goodbye
- giving away possessions
- saying they have no reason to live
- sudden relief from or improvement of symptoms
- If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Call 911 or the local emergency number.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255.
Offering compassionate, judgment free support can make the journey out of depression feel less daunting.