How to Support Someone Who’s Depressed

Danielle Forth

depression, mental health, supporting depressed, loved ones, therapy, self-care

Andrew was tired. Tired of how much effort even the smallest tasks took, tired of feeling inadequate, tired of the aches and pains in his body, and tired of well-intentioned friends and family saying things like, “You just have to think positively and count your blessings” or “You have so much going for you, why are you so sad?” Most days he felt overwhelmed and alone.

What Andrew really wished people understood is that he was experiencing another bout of depression. Depression is a mood disorder that develops from environmental and biological issues that are unique to each person. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), approximately 8% of adults will experience major depression at some point in their lives. Since 2005, the rates of depression have increased by more than 18%. Symptoms of depression include a loss of interest or pleasure in nearly all activities; fatigue or loss of energy; body aches and pains; changes in sleep; feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness; difficulty concentrating or indecisiveness; and changes in appetite resulting in significant weight loss or weight gain.

In 2017, the World Health Organization (WH0) reported that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide. Many people experiencing depression don’t get the treatment they need to lead healthy and productive lives due to a lack of support and a fear of the stigma associated with having a mental health issue. Your care and support can help reduce this stigma and support those who are struggling. However, it can be hard to know what to say or do to support someone experiencing depression. Here are five strategies to try:

1. Listen. Just listen.

It’s tough to see someone you care about struggle with depression, and the desire to want to make things better can be strong. Now is not the time to give advice, lighten the mood by cracking jokes, or try to solve their issues. A person experiencing depression does not want to feel like someone is fixing them.

Author Stephen Covey wisely observed that most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply. Listening to understand means genuinely trying to get a sense of what that person is going through and letting them know that you’re there for them. Try asking, “What can I do to help you feel better?”

Sometimes people need some time to sort out how they’re feeling and aren’t ready to talk. Don’t force them to talk and don’t take it personally if they don’t want to have a conversation about it. Instead offer to give them some space and let them know you’ll check in later. And when they’re ready to share what’s happening with them, remember that it’s likely that you won’t have a single conversation. You might need to be persistent and express your concern and your willingness to listen over and over again.

Not sure how to start the conversation? Try saying: “I’ve noticed that you seem pretty down lately, and I wanted to check in” or “You don’t seem like yourself and I’m wondering how you’re doing.”

2. Recognize that depression is much more than feeling sad.

Depression is not something that someone can just choose to snap out of. It’s not a character weakness, a poor attitude, or laziness—depression is a disorder. The causes and presentation of depression are unique to each person. Some people withdraw, some are irritable or restless, some have body aches and pains or sleep problems, and some look sad. Learning about depression will help you better understand what your loved one is going through. Avoid making judgements, shaming, or blaming them for what they’re experiencing.

Recognize that depression is much more than feeling sad.

3. Encourage the person to get help.

Depression is a serious but treatable disorder with a high success rate for those who seek help. However, it can worsen over time without treatment. Share with your loved one what you’ve noticed about their mood and behaviour and why you’re concerned. Explain what you’ve learned about the symptoms of depression and its negative impacts. Suggest a check-up with their family physician to rule out any medical factors contributing to the depression. Help them make a list of symptoms and questions to ask the doctor, and offer to go to the appointment with them.

It’s also important to encourage your loved one to talk with a mental health professional, either in the community or online. Offer to help them find these services if this seems daunting to them. If they’re resistant to talking with a counsellor, explain that sometimes our brains need a check-up just like other parts of our body. If it isn’t financially feasible to speak with a counsellor, encourage them to look at online resources such as DepressionHurts.ca or to try a mental-health app.

It can place a great deal of pressure on you if you feel alone in supporting your friend or family member with depression. Help your loved one identify a support network such as a partner, another friend, or family members. Ask them who else they think could be involved in supporting them.

4. Look after yourself.

Supporting someone with depression can be overwhelming at times. Factors like the severity of the depression, whether there’s access to treatment or other means of support, and whether you live with the person can intensify the supporting experience. Setting time aside for yourself is essential. You can’t be a source of support if you’re burned out. Do things you enjoy, hang out with friends, and get your own emotional support. It’s not possible to be a support 24 hours a day – this puts too much pressure on you and isn’t healthy. Know your own limits and set boundaries around what you’re willing and not willing to do.

The best way to support someone with depression is to let them know they’re not alone.

5. Know the warning signs for suicide.

People experiencing depression have an increased risk of suicide, and it’s important to take this risk seriously. A loss, changes in personal or professional circumstances, or big event can put someone with depression at an even greater risk for suicide. Three categories of warning signs to look out for are:

  • Talk – Talking about death, dying, suicide, threatening to harm themselves, expressing hopelessness, saying they have no reason to live, feeling like they’re a burden.
  • Behaviour – Increased use or misuse of alcohol or drugs, no longer taking care of themselves or following medical advice, withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed and isolating from friends and family, sleeping too much or too little, giving away cherished possessions, calling or visiting people to say goodbye.
  • Mood – Loss of interest in people and activities, anxiety, irritability, shame or humiliation, mood swings, suddenly becoming calm after a period of moodiness or depression.

Trust your gut and don’t ignore the warning signs of suicide. Talk with your loved one about your concerns; connecting with someone that cares can make a tremendous difference for them. Don’t worry about raising the topic of suicide –  research shows that talking about suicide doesn’t increase the chance of someone killing themselves.

If you are concerned about a friend or loved one, the Canada Suicide Prevention Service provides confidential suicide prevention and support and can be reached 24/7 at 1-833-456-4566 for voice and 4 PM to 12 AM for text. For those who are outside of Canada, you can find a list of hotlines for other countries provided by the International Association for Suicide Prevention. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

The experience of depression varies greatly from person to person and some are impacted more than others. The best way to support your loved one with depression is to let them know they’re not alone, that you care about them and will be there for them, and to give them space if they need it.

If you want to learn more about supporting someone with depression, check out these other resources offered by CTRI:

Distinguishing Depression from the Depressed

Suicide Warning Signs

Informal Suicide Risk Assessment

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For more FREE RESOURCES on this topic and others, visit our free resources page.

Author: Danielle Forth (MSc, RPsych)
Trainer, Crisis & Trauma Resource Institute

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