In the social world that we live in, one person’s depression rarely ever exists in a vacuum. When a loved one is in need of support, family members and friends tend to feel helpless, not knowing how to reach out or what to do to help.
Because depression is so common, the likelihood that you’ve cared for someone with the disease—past, present or future—is exceedingly high. And although society is better educated on mental illness today than in decades past, most people still struggle with the formidable task of consoling someone with depression. To no fault of their own, even those with the best of intentions flounder at the charge. The reason for this is still unproven, but it might have something to do with the fact that we aim to reach those in pain directly, who by nature of the illness often feel like their situation is helpless. Maybe we can change the condition of mental health in America by beginning to educate the friends and family of individuals who are fighting depression.
Every case of mental illness is different, but the following are a few functional suggestions to help you support your loved one.
The first step is to learn what depression is—a clinical disorder that may be triggered by an event but becomes a separate condition. Although you cannot “cure” your loved one, you can better understand the condition by educating yourself about mental illness. Reading up will give you more patience to tolerate the confusing or frustrating symptoms, and keep you from saying well-intended but potentially upsetting things. As is the case with everything: It’s impossible to help when you don’t understand the problem.
More likely than not, your friend will not tell you the whole story unprompted. To get the crucial information that you need to help, don’t be afraid to ask a few (but not overbearing!) questions. Effective queries include: “Can you think of anything that might’ve triggered this feeling? Is there anything that makes you feel better? What makes you feel worse? Do you have suicidal thoughts?”
You’re not a medical professional—and there’s no need to try to be! Instead, do what you do best and be a good friend. Put a smile on their face whenever possible, show love and support—be what your loved one needs, but what a medical professional can’t supply: a devoted friend. It’s better to focus on the difficult role that you already have than try to also be something you’re not (like, a therapist).
But don’t discount the disease
It’s tempting to remind your friend all that they have to be happy in life, but be conscious of what you cannot understand. Avoid all rebuttals like “it’s not so bad” and “you’re just being negative”: It’s counterproductive to everything you’re hoping to achieve. Anyone can suffer from depression—even the people who seem to have it all. Not only are these remarks unlikely to boost mood, but also they can backfire by reinforcing a sense of being alone in their fight. Instead, if you’re looking for something positive to say, try telling your friend how much they mean to you.
Never underestimate the power of being there. You may feel as though your presence is unwanted—but just by showing up, you ensure your loved one that they’re not alone in their battles. Do everything in your power to stay in touch, even if they don’t initiate contact, are slow to respond, or never accept your invitations to plans. It’s important to differentiate between who your friend is and what depression can do to a person, like take away their initiative and desire to be social.
Remind them that it’s temporary
One of the hardest but the most important things you can do for a loved one with depression is getting them to believe that one day, they will get better. Prompting that initial burst of hope can be half the battle.
Do your best to avoid the expression of hostility and outward frustration. Unmistakably, this is easier said than done (because we all have our own needs), but it’s important to recognize that in times of crisis, your loved one needs your support.
Aim to show patience in even the most unpleasant interactions. If your attempts to help are met with resistance, try again but avoid bossiness or ultimatums. You might think you know what’s best, but the worst thing you can do is push a friend in need so far away, that you push them out entirely. You might need to work overtime on compassion.
Suspend judgments and save interjections. A good rule of thumb is to do more listening than talking. Be mindful of good listening skills, such as eye contact and body language.
Encourage them to seek help
The most important thing you can do is encourage your friend to see a mental health professional. You can’t control someone else’s recovery, but you can make it as easy on them as possible. That might mean sitting beside your friend as they call to make the first appointment or helping them find affordable counseling.
A few closing remarks: stay in touch with yourself. You’re not going to be able to help someone if you’re not in a good place yourself. It’s perfectly alright to not be available all the time, but exercise communication about when you can and cannot help, and don’t blame yourself if you can’t solve all their problems. It’s above your pay grade!