When someone you care about is depressed, it’s not just their problem. Because you care about them and would do almost anything to help them, it’s also yours. To help someone who’s depressed, you need empathy, understanding, and good information. Here’s what you need to know—and what you need to find out.
Know the Signs
People with depression quite often don’t even know they’re depressed. When you know the signs, you may be able to help them before their symptoms get out of hand.
Here are some signs to watch out for in your friend or family member:
- Doesn’t seem to care about anything anymore. Has no interest in work, sex, hobbies, and other pleasurable activities. Is withdrawn from friends, family, and other social activities.
- Has a bleak or negative attitude about life. Is uncharacteristically sad, irritable, short-tempered, critical, or moody. Uses words like “helpless,” “hopeless,” or “pointless.”
- Often complains of aches and pains. May have frequent and unexplained headaches, stomach problems, and back pain. May complain of feeling tired or exhausted all the time.
- Suffers disturbed sleep. Gets either less or more than usual, or may act as though short on sleep: confused, forgetful, distracted, or out-of-it.
- Eats more or less than usual. May have recently gained or lost weight.
- Drinks more or abuses drugs. May abuse prescription sleeping pills or prescription painkillers—or even over-the-counter medications.
Depression is not the same as being sad, disappointed, or lonely, though depression may sometimes seem to take the form of these feelings. By understanding what depression is and isn’t, you’ll be better able to help your loved one deal with it.
- Depression is a serious mood disorder. Don’t underestimate how serious it can be. Depression can drain a person of energy, optimism, and motivation. Your depressed friend or family member can’t just “pull themselves out of their mood” by force of will, and having difficulty dealing with depression is not a character flaw.
- The symptoms of depression aren’t personal. Depression makes personal and emotional connections difficult, even with those who are closest. Depressed people sometimes say hurtful things, or lash out in anger. Remember that this is the depression talking, not your loved one, so try not to take it personally. (This doesn’t mean you should accept physical or emotional abuse. On the contrary: This is all the more reason to get help—for yourself and your loved one.)
- Masking the problem won’t make it go away. Don’t deny the problem, make excuses, cover it up, or lie for a friend or family member who is depressed—and when you see the signs, encourage them to face up to what’s going on.
- You can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. You can encourage them to get help, and do what you can to help make that possible, but you’re not to blame for your loved one’s depression. Nor are you responsible for it. Ultimately, recovery is in their hands.
Know How to React
With all of that negative thought they’re dealing with, depressed people can be difficult to listen to, and even harder to talk to. (Again, don’t accept abuse, and don’t take on more than you can handle.) When it comes to interactions with a depressed person, know that compassionate listening probably will be more effective than advice. But if you’re listening, you’ll want to respond. Here are some things that can be helpful to say (and a few things to avoid):
It can be helpful to say:
- You’re not alone. I’m here for you.
- It may be hard to believe right now, but the way you’re feeling will change.
- I may not understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you, and I want to help.
- When you want to give up, tell yourself to hold on for just one more day, one more hour, or one more minute. Whatever you feel you can handle.
- You—and your life—are important to me.
- Tell me what I can do right now to help.
- It’s all in your head.
- We all go through times like these.
- Look on the bright side.
- You have so much to live for. (This may seem positive, but may just prompt them to list all the reasons they don’t want to live.)
- I can’t do anything about this.
- Snap out of it.
- What’s wrong with you?
- Hasn’t this gone on long enough?
Unless you’re a trained therapist, you don’t have access to all the knowledge, expertise, and techniques that may help a depressed person. (And if you are, you shouldn’t treat someone you’re so close to.) While it’s helpful to be a supportive friend or relative, depressed people most often need professional help to recover.
Depressed people are also, quite often, resistant to getting help. (It’s another aspect of the negative thought process.) If they won’t take the step on their own, you may be able to encourage them.
- Suggest a general checkup with their doctor. While the doctor may not be able to treat depression on his or her own, they can recommend therapy and may even provide some referral options. Getting the advice from a professional can make all the difference.
- Help them make a list of symptoms to discuss with a doctor. That doctor’s visit may not get them a referral if they don’t bring up the problem in the first place. If your loved one avoids talking about their feelings, encourage them to describe the physical symptoms you’ve noticed.
- Offer to find a therapist or even go along on the first visit. For a depressed person, seemingly easy tasks may be a struggle. And finding the right therapist can take some time. They may be relieved if you offer to help with this.
Watch for Warning Signs of Suicide
No one wants to believe their loved one might commit suicide, but for a depressed person, it’s at least a possibility. Be alert to the following signals, and call for help if you see them.
- Talk of suicide, dying, or giving up on life
- Self-harm or self-mutilation
- Dangerous or reckless behavior
- Getting affairs in order, or saying good-bye
- Looking for pills or weapons
- Sudden sense of calm after prolonged depression
Take Care of Yourself
As with any illness, depression takes a toll on those who care for a depressed person. And you won’t help anyone by letting yourself get run down physically or emotionally. Eat well, and get enough sleep, exercise, and outdoor time. Make time to do the things you enjoy. Speak up for yourself, set clear boundaries (when you are and are not available to help), keep up with the important things in your life, and be attuned to whether you might need to get professional help with your own emotional needs.