Reviewed by: Dr. Rachael Grantham, Psy.D
Depression can change a happy and vibrant friend or family member into someone very different. It’s very difficult to watch a loved one struggle with depression and we naturally want to help, but depression is not just like having a bad day, you can’t just… cheer up.
Although many people with depression feel sadness, it’s much more severe than emotions that come and go in response to life events. The symptoms of depression can last for months or years and can make it difficult or impossible to continue on with daily life.
COMMON SYMPTOMS OF DEPRESSION
It’s important to remember that depression is not the same for everyone. There are many symptoms, and one person’s experience may be completely different from the next. But if you think someone you know might be struggling with depression, here are some of the physical signs to look for:
- Lack of energy
- Restlessness and agitation
- Having difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
As you may expect, there are also many emotional signs of depression, some of which may seem obvious while others are harder to identify.
- Feeling sad and in low spirits.
- Loss of interest
- Increased anxiety
- Low self-confidence and self-esteem
- Feeling hopeless
Knowing somebody you love is struggling with depression can leave you feeling extremely helpless. You think that if you could say the right thing, or do something special, that maybe you will be able to help them to get better. But you don’t know what to say or what to do.
You try a gentle approach, you try a firm approach. You give them space, you try to get them to open up. You suggest things that can help. You buy them presents. You say encouraging things, you get frustrated and argue. Still, nothing you do seems to make a difference.
For someone living with depression, supportive friends and family members can make all the difference, but it is hard to find ways to help. Thankfully, there are some things that we can do to assist loved ones struggling with depression.
BE THERE…BE CONSISTENT…BE KIND
One of the most important things you can do to help a friend or loved one with depression is to give your unconditional love and support. This means being understanding, patient, and encouraging, which is not always easy when dealing with some of the challenges that go hand in hand with depression.
I know you think that by being positive and following them around like their personal cheerleader, one day it might occur to them, “Yeah! Life is great and things are awesome and I’m fixed!” But it won’t. Endless supplies of positivity aren’t helpful they actually do more harm than good. It’s frustrating. It’s reminding them that they aren’t full of cheer.
I know it looks like they are just sad, and sometimes they can feel incredibly down, but cheering up won’t help. They’re experiencing a complete lack of emotion, and you can’t fix something that doesn’t exist. All the funny animal gifs in the world aren’t going to cure them. Just be there.
Remind them that this is temporary. Don’t tell them to keep trying, just remind them that there’s a light out there. Listen and validate their feelings without trying to fix them or cheer the person up. Don’t offer opinions or advice. Just be normal, but be supportive.
It’s important that you have realistic expectations. It can be frustrating to watch a depressed friend or family member struggle, especially if progress is slow or stalled. Having patience is important. Even with optimal treatment, recovery from depression doesn’t happen overnight.
HELP THEM HELP THEMSELVES
While you can’t control someone else’s recovery, you can start by encouraging the depressed person to seek help. Getting a depressed person into treatment can be difficult, but according to a recent research study published in the International Review of Psychiatry, those suffering from depression that seek treatment can live healthier more well-adjusted lives.
Depression zaps energy and motivation, so even the act of making an appointment or finding a doctor can seem daunting. Help your loved one make and keep appointments, research treatment options, and stay on schedule with prescribed treatment.
ENCOURAGE POSITIVE LIFE CHOICES
Encourage your friend or loved one to pursue a healthier and uplifting lifestyle by doing it yourself: maintain a positive outlook, eat better, exercise, avoid alcohol and drugs, and lean on others for support.
Encourage activity. Invite your loved one to join you in positive activities, like going to a funny movie or having dinner at a favorite restaurant. Exercise is especially beneficial, so try to get your depressed loved one moving.
Going on walks together can be great for the mind, body, and soul… it offers you the opportunity to connect emotionally simply by being present and experiencing life together, no talking required!
Sharing an experience together is all the communication you will need. Be gently and lovingly persistent. Don’t get discouraged, they are worth it!
BE WILLING TO JUST LISTEN
Use compassionate listening. Don’t rush to offer advice. Let them know you are there for them and that you want to help in any way you can. If they don’t want to talk about it, respect that.
Let them know you are worried and that you are happy to listen when they want to talk. By listening and responding in a non-judgmental and reassuring manner, you are helping them to feel loved and understood.
Try using phrases like these:
- You are not alone in this struggle.
- I am here for you.
- I care about you.
- Tell me how I can help you.
Avoid using phrases like these:
- Snap out of it.
- Everyone feels down sometimes.
- I know how you feel.
- Try and look at the positive.
HELP WITH DAILY LIFE WHERE YOU CAN
When you live with depression, sometimes even the smallest of tasks can feel hard to complete. Typical routines may become challenging, and those affected may start losing motivation to get out of bed, shower, eat or go to work. Ask your friend or loved one how you can help, even the smallest of tasks can make an impact. Here are some suggestions:
- Pick up groceries or go grocery shopping with them.
- Prepare them a meal.
- Drive them to and from their appointments.
- Take them to a movie.
- Help with laundry or household chores.
BE WILLING TO BE PART OF THE PLAN – CRISIS INTERVENTION
It is important that your loved ones know they can come to you if things get hard or if they need your help. Try to avoid leading with anger and frustration when they are struggling. If they fear your emotional response, they may be less likely to come to you the next time. Those suffering from depression are at an increased risk of suicide or self-harm. If your loved one is severely depressed, prepare yourself for the possibility that at some point they may feel they are a danger to themselves or others. Take all signs of suicidal behavior seriously and act immediately.
Suggestions for crisis management:
- Contact the person’s doctor, mental health provider or other health care professional. Let other family members or close friends know what’s going on.
- Make sure the person is in a safe environment.
- Make sure someone stays with that person at all times.
- Know your local crisis hotlines and have the numbers available.
- Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if the person is in danger of self-harm or suicide.
SELF-CARE: YOU HAVE TO TAKE CARE OF YOU.
Spending a significant amount of time with someone suffering from clinical depression can be draining at times, and according to research. Without taking time out to look after yourself and to enjoy your own life, you put yourself at greater risk for increased stress and low mood.
There is no simple cure for depression and although you can offer support, always remember that you can’t just make someone feel better with motivational speeches, it just doesn’t work that way. Make sure to keep perspective. Helping loved ones with depression can be enduring. Give yourself enough time each day to recharge your batteries.
Be honest but keep it positive. Tough love may work for some but it’s important to understand that harsh words or criticisms even if true, can cut deeply to a person already weakened by depression. Positive encouragement and honest praise can help to restore a self-confidence and self-esteem.
Always remember that you are not alone. More than 16 million men and women in America have had at least one major depressive episode in the past year, making depression one of the most common mental illnesses in America. Learning to support those that suffer from depression has become a new normal for many people and there are many out there who need your support on their life journey.
David M. Clark (2011) Implementing NICE guidelines for the psychological treatment of depression and anxiety disorders: The IAPT experience, International Review of Psychiatry, 23:4, 318-327, DOI: 10.3109/09540261.2011.606803
Mary Ellen Copeland MS, MA (2002) Wellness Recovery Action Plan, Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 17:3-4, 127-150, DOI: 10.1300/J004v17n03_09
Figley, C. R. (2002), Compassion fatigue: Psychotherapists’ chronic lack of self care. J. Clin. Psychol., 58: 1433-1441. doi:10.1002/jclp.10090