How to Help Someone with Depression
Depression is complex and it can be difficult to know how to help someone with depression. If a friend or family members is struggling with depression, you might not know exactly what you can do to make their life easier or to help remedy the situation. Individuals who have never struggled with depression may not know what to do, what to say or how to express themselves. This also applies to someone trying to help a loved one with depression. You might be so worried about doing or saying the wrong thing that you just skirt the issue or hope that if you ignore it the person with depression will be able to ignore it, too.
The problem with depression is that it isolates people. Friends and family often feel helpless and do not know what to do to help. Meanwhile, the person with depression already feels inadequate or unworthy and begins to push themselves away from their loved ones, sabotaging even good, helpful, and healthy relationships, which, in turn, only allows the person to sink deeper into their own depression. Someone struggling with this very real illness needs your support and understanding, above all else.
Here are a few things that you can do to help someone with depression:
1. Just be there.
Individuals suffering from depression will often start to avoid the people that they love, because they are concerned about being a burden on the people around them. They already don’t like being around themselves, so they project that same emotion on to their closest friends and family members. That said, most people who have depression need someone to just be around them, to support them in their time of need, to listen to them and nod as they talk. Even just telling them that they are important to you or that you are there are willing to help with whatever they need can be helpful.
2. Small gestures of love are always appreciated.
When my best friend was struggling with her depression, in our senior year of college, she told me one of the best things I could do for her was just to continue to show her that I loved her and would be there for her. The phone calls, stopping by her place, leaving treats and picking her up to have dinner together were all things that helped her know that I and the rest of our friend group cared about her. When someone is depressed, the negative voice in their head will often tell them over and over that no one really cares about them and that their friends and family would be better off without them. Continually proving to that person that the voice is a liar can be monumentally helpful.
3. Do not criticize.
Many people look at mental health as something that is entirely in your head and that if a person with depression would just be more positive, their problems would be solved. The truth is that depression is a real chemical imbalance and blue sky thinking is not the solution, just as positive thinking does not heal a cut or fight cancer. While it is true that you should not always let a depressed person wallow in their depression, comments like, “You need to cheer up,” or “Why don’t you try looking on the positive side,” are not helpful. Why not? They imply that the person is choosing to feel the way they feel. Comments like these will usually cause the person to withdraw from you.
4. Try not to give advice, especially if you don’t know what will actually help.
One of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to help someone with depression is making suggestions or providing advice that has no basis in medical science. Instead of saying things like, “Maybe if you got out of bed, you would feel better,” say something like, “What can I do to help you feel better?” This provides the individual with an opportunity to ask you for help, without feeling like they are being shamed or judged for feeling the way they do.
5. Don’t make comparisons.
Unless you have personally struggled with depression and have something to say that you know will make the other person feel better, it’s probably not a good idea to compare a time when you felt sad to the depression that a person is feeling right now. While you might think that making a comparison between the two situations helps the depressed person to feel less alone, what it really does is reinforce the idea already in their head that no one else will ever understand what they are feeling. It also acts to minimize the person’s experience with their own feelings. There is a big difference, for example, between feeling sad because someone broke up with you and the soul-crushing sadness, listlessness, and emptiness of real depression.
6. Learn what you can about depression.
When you better understand what causes depression, what its symptoms are, and the consequences of this mental illness, you are better equipped to support someone who has it. Make sure, however, that you are getting your information from a reliable source. It is also important to remember that depression changes. Your loved one is going to have good days and bad days. Even on their worst days, they may be able to pretend that they are having a great day. Assuming that someone is no longer depressed, just because they seem cheerful is not helpful.
7. Don’t be afraid to recommend treatment.
A lot of depressed people are embarrassed about their feelings. They do not want to talk to anyone about it. If they have opened up to you, don’t be afraid to suggest that they talk to a professional who has training and licensing to help them with this issue.
In my practice, Cope Better Therapy, I help adults cope through complex emotions and thoughts. If you would like to discuss how to help someone with depression or if you or someone you know would benefit from counseling, contact me. I’d love to hear from you.