How to Help a Depressed Friend or Family Member
If a friend or family member is living with depression, it can be difficult to know how best to support them. In this article we will look at how to help someone with depression, while taking care of your own wellbeing, too.
Depression is Common
Depression is a mental health condition characterized by low mood, loss of pleasure in life and feeling empty or numb. Although stressful life events, such as divorce, unemployment, or a serious medical diagnosis, can increase the risk of depression occurring, many people cannot pinpoint a specific event that triggered it.
This is because depression is not only an emotional condition. Scientists have found that for some people with depression, the symptoms may be caused by low levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. If the neurotransmitter levels fall too low, our moods and emotions can also plummet.
Sadly, in the USA depression is common in adults. The National Institute of Mental Health reported that around 17.3 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2017. That’s the equivalent of 7.1% of all the adults in the United States.
In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that “more than 264 million people of all ages suffer from depression” globally. Additionally, women are more likely to be affected by depression than men, and depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide.
If you find yourself in the position of needing to help or support a depressed loved one, you are therefore not alone.
How to Tell if Someone is Dealing with Depression
Although you might feel more confident in spotting depression in a friend or family member who is sad, tearful, or talking about feeling “empty”, recognizing the other symptoms of depression can be harder.
Despite being a common illness, some of the signs of depression are non-specific. Your friend or family member may:
- Seem irritable, angry, confused, or forgetful
- Mention feeling guilty or worthless
- Have difficulty concentrating on a task
- Eat more or less than usual
- Lose interest in things they previously loved, such as sports, hobbies, or TV shows
- Complain of not sleeping well, or sleeping more than usual
- Neglect their own personal care, including failing to shower, brush their teeth, or wear clean clothes each day
- Be lacking in energy, or even appear listless
- Have difficulty making simple decisions
- Decline invitations to meet up
- Communicate with you less frequently, whether by phone, text or in person
- Seem pessimistic or appear hopeless about their future
- Talk about hurting themselves, death, or suicide.
How to Help a Depressed Person
It can be worrying to see a loved one struggling with their mental health. Ultimately, they must take responsibility for their own emotional wellbeing, but you may be able to offer practical support and show empathy to let them know that they are not alone on their journey.
Although your instinct might be to find solutions and offer advice, often all you need to do is listen to your friend or family member. The Mental Health Foundation reports that “talking about your feelings can help you…deal with times when you feel troubled”. It’s also one of the first steps for your loved one to take control of their own wellbeing.
However, expressing feelings can lead to a sense of vulnerability. For many, this can be a barrier to beginning a conversation. If your loved one is struggling to open up, you could start the conversation by sharing your worries or observations, before giving them a chance to respond. Opening sentences such as “you’ve seemed very sad lately,” or “has something been troubling you?” can ease a relative into talking to you.
Once they start talking, try to practice active listening. Often, we might think we are listening when we are, in fact, busy thinking of responses or solutions, or even daydreaming about something else. Active listening requires you to give your undivided attention, so that you truly focus on what is being said.
As they talk, gently nudge the conversation along with validation such as “that sounds really difficult”, or “that must have felt so sad”. Gentle murmurs of “yes” or “I see” can be enough to show that you are listening and invested in the conversation, and that you care about what they’re saying.
At times, you may need to sit with their silence. Silence might feel uncomfortable at times, but if you can give someone the space to talk without interrupting the silence, you may find that they express far more than they would with you asking well-meant questions.
Don’t be a Rescuer
When you want to support a friend or family member with depression, it can be easy to fall into the role of rescuer or saviour. You could throw all your energy and spare time into supporting them, but long term this is very unlikely to help their mental health.
Rather than being a rescuer, think of yourself as their support crew. Just as athletes have a team behind them to support their sporting achievements, you can support your friend or relative in making their own progress with their mental health. If you rescue rather than support, they will never learn to put the steps in place that are required to succeed.
Furthermore, your loved one will only start to feel better if they start to do the work themselves.
It can be tempting to make comparisons with others in an attempt to help someone “snap out of it”. Statements that are designed to coax someone out of depression are likely to do more harm than good, though.
Expressing “your life is so good, how can you feel sad?”, or reasoning “how you feel isn’t as bad as…” can make it feel like you haven’t validated their feelings.
Remember, depression doesn’t need to have a reason. You wouldn’t tell someone with asthma that their life is too good for them to feel unwell, so remember not to make similar statements regarding mental health, either.
Help Find Support
As part of their support team, your friend or relative may ask you to help them manage their condition. Aside from listening, one of the best ways to do this is to signpost them to professional agencies who can help.
Even if you are a great listener for your friend or family member, nothing compares to professional therapy. A trained counsellor or therapist can help someone who is suffering from depression to explore their feelings safely and effectively. They can also give advice on managing the symptoms of depression.
Both in person and online therapy can be effective ways of expressing feelings. For someone who has become isolated or has lost motivation, online therapy can be an easier way to access professional support. It may also be more convenient for those juggling work, childcare or other pressures.
Exploring feelings, emotions and traumatic life events in therapy can be extremely painful. Your loved one may need you to encourage them to persevere with the sessions. Remind them of how therapy might help, or that they felt better after the previous session, so that they don’t give up.
Although antidepressants have received a bad press in the past, modern medication can truly help to lift the heaviness of depression.
We have already seen that depression can be caused by low levels of neurotransmitters. Many antidepressants work to increase the levels of these chemicals, which can lift the mood significantly.
Encourage your friend or relative to visit their doctor to discuss their symptoms. If deemed appropriate, the doctor may recommend that they start a course of antidepressants.
People who take medication for mental health conditions often require regular follow up to ensure the drug is having the desired effect and not causing side effects. It is therefore also important to encourage your loved one to attend any subsequent appointments.
If they should announce that they feel better and are ready to stop any treatment, you may need to gently advise that they should make another appointment to ensure they stop taking the medication in a controlled manner to avoid a recurrence of symptoms.
There are many ways to help someone with depression, and the support you offer doesn’t have to be specific to your friend’s mental health. Being patient is key; despite your best efforts, depression will take time to improve and certainly won’t vanish overnight.
When depression occurs, it can become impossible to complete everyday chores. Offer to cook a meal for your friend, pick up their groceries, clean the bathroom or even do their laundry. Ticking off a few errands could really help ease their load.
Someone with depression may decline all event invitations, but try to persevere with inviting them. If you stop including them because they never turn up, their risk of becoming isolated increases. Keep going, and you may find that one day they feel strong enough to accept.
Meeting up for a coffee or sitting on the couch for a chat doesn’t have to mean talking about feelings or depression. Your friend may still want to talk about all the regular parts of life, and may even value a break from talking about their emotions.
Texting or calling regularly is a great way to check in and let your loved one know you are thinking of them. This can be helpful in preventing feelings of isolation.
When to Get Help
Many people with depression require input from a healthcare professional. If this occurs, it should not be seen as a sign that you have failed to support them. Accessing help should be seen positively.
It is wise to seek expert advice if your friend or family member experiences any of the following:
- Depression that is not easing
- Thoughts of self-harm, suicide, or death
- Alcohol or drug abuse
- Feeling that life is hopeless or worthless
- Becoming listless or disinterested in all aspects of life.
If you are concerned about any other behavior or circumstances, you must seek advice from a professional.
Take Care of Yourself
When supporting someone with depression it is easy to become consumed by their emotions and needs. It is therefore important to ensure you are meeting your own needs by putting some boundaries in place.
Without meaning to, a friend or family member with depression can quickly sap your time and energy. Short term this might be manageable, but over time you may feel burned out.
Assertive communication is a way of expressing your point of view clearly and directly, whilst still being respectful. If you feel overwhelmed, let your friend know what you can offer them, and when. You might need to set specific times when you are available to talk or meet up, and make it clear that at other times you will be away from your phone. This might be particularly important if their needs are impacting your working day or time with other friends or family.
This form of communication will minimize conflict between you, and ensure your relationship remains healthy and positive.
When you are busy helping someone else, it can be easy to neglect your own needs. Be sure to make time for self-care, whether that is in the form of reading, exercise, a relaxing bath or unwinding with a movie.
Women who spend a significant amount of time supporting others may benefit from attending their own face to face or online therapy sessions, too.
Depression is a common condition, and many women may find themselves wanting to help a depressed friend or family member.
It is vital to remember that you are supporting your loved one as they nurture their own mental health, which may include them trying online therapy. You are not wholly responsible for healing them, and so you should seek expert advice if you are concerned.
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Kate has an MD in Health and Medical Psychology. She has worked in the healthcare industry since 2017, helping people with depression, anxiety, trauma, and grief as well as identity, relationship, and adjustment issues. Kate tries to make the world a better place by fighting stigma and discrimination and advocating for equality and equity for all people. And what she loves most about her work at Calmerry is the possibility to make quality mental health care even more accessible to everyone – one step at a time.Read more