How to Support Someone with Depression
Millions of people in the United States deal with a mental illness. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) says that in 2018 an estimated 1 in 5 adults experienced mental illness. That means more than 47 million people deal with serious mental illness.
Of those, 17.7 million Americans had a major depressive episode in 2018.
Depression isn’t just feeling occasionally low or sad. It’s a mood disorder that can have a serious impact on every area of a person’s life. Depression can affect how you think, feel and deal with daily activities including going to work, eating and sleeping.
To be diagnosed with depression, someone must have symptoms that are present most of the day almost every day for at least two weeks.
There are different kinds of depression, the most common of which is major depression.
Researchers believe that multiple factors play a role in the development of depression including psychological factors, environmental factors, and biological components. Depression also often occurs along with serious chronic illnesses such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
If someone in your life has depression, you may feel helpless, and it may affect your quality of life as well.
While you can’t cure your loved one’s depression, there are things you can do to support them...
Recognize the Signs of Depression
If you believe your loved one is struggling with depression, but you aren’t sure, or they’ve dealt with it in the past, one thing you can do to help them and support them is to learn what the symptoms are.
There are many symptoms, and some are more apparent than others.
For example, in addition to feelings of sadness or emptiness, depression can also cause restlessness and irritability, problems sleeping, problems concentrating, and decreased energy. People with depression may struggle with physical symptoms like pain, headaches, and digestive issues.
The symptoms can also vary in men and women and between different age groups. For example, when men have depression, their symptoms most often include anger and irritability, as well as reckless behavior such as substance abuse.
Women may experience guilt, feelings of worthlessness, and sadness.
Older adults may be less likely to admit to experiencing symptoms of depression. Children and teens may have problems at school or they may be irritable.
In addition to depression symptoms, be aware of suicide risk symptoms too.
Someone with depression is at an increased risk of feeling suicidal.
Warning signs include:
- Talking about suicide
- Getting things that could be used to complete suicide, such as stockpiling pills
- Withdrawing from others
- Mood swings
- Preoccupation with dying, death or violence
- Seeming to feel hopeless or trapped
- Increased use of drugs or alcohol
- Changes in daily routine
- Giving away belongings
- Saying goodbye to people
- Severe personality changes
If you believe your loved one is having suicidal thoughts, this is not something you can help them with. This is an emergency.
You can contact a health care professional who can help you or a suicide hotline.
The more you can learn about depression and everything that comes with it, the more you can provide well-informed support.
Make Your Support Known
When we love someone with depression, we often feel helpless as far as how to help them, but the things we can do are much simpler than we might realize.
For example, one of the very best and most healing things you can do is let your loved one know you are there and you are willing to listen. You don’t have to give advice or try to solve problems. Just listen with an open mind and an open heart.
Sometimes if a loved one with a mental illness is struggling and we’re trying to support them, we might come off as judgmental or critical without realizing it.
What you say is important, and don’t be judgmental.
For example, don’t say “just snap out of it,” or “it could be so much worse.” These can be really damaging statements to someone who is struggling with depression.
These things also implied your loved one has control or has a say over what they’re dealing with.
Similarly, tough love is not a good option in these scenarios.
Being tough on someone you love isn’t going to help undo their depression or create any desire for behavioral changes. Instead, it may push the person further away from you.
There are statements that we can make without even realizing it that minimize what someone with depression is going through. Again, we may think we’re being helpful, but that’s not helpful.
For example, saying that someone should toughen up or stop letting things bother them is minimizing the situation.
Focus on the Positive
When people have depression, it’s very easy for them to see the world but also themselves in a negative light. They may self-criticize and pick themselves apart. If they don’t make the progress they’d like to, that can also be very hard for them.
You can help them focus on the positive. Point out the good things and the steps they’re making each day, no matter how small.
Ask What You Can Do
Again, some of the simplest things we can do for a loved one experiencing depression and the things we might not think about.
Ask your loved one what it is you can do to help and support them. Maybe they’d like you to help them with errands or watch a movie with them.
Don’t assume you know the best way to help without asking.
Finally, it is a good idea to make plans that you can do with your loved one if they’re comfortable with it. For example, maybe you go on a run together or go to the movies.
However, if your loved one isn’t comfortable with doing something, don’t try to push them. Accept and respect their boundaries.
It’s challenging when you love someone who’s depressed, but primarily remember it’s not your job to fix them—you should be supporting them.