Not knowing what to do or say when you're trying to help someone who's depressed can be incredibly difficult, especially if you haven't experienced depression yourself. It can make you feel useless, which can in turn make you angry at or resentful of the person going through it, which isn't helpful for anyone.
In a piece for Psychology Today on ways to support someone who's depressed, Dr. Jean Kim said that sometimes when trying to help a friend or loved one with depression, we might say things that are more aimed to ease our own discomfort with the situation rather than saying things genuinely helpful to the person in need.
"Unwittingly or not, statements that put blame on a depressed person’s willpower, lack of motivation, or negative mind frame often backfire and increase that person’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness," she said. "The statements sometimes come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the depression illness. It is a biopsychosocial condition that traps its victims in a circuitous broken-record mindset that creates vulnerable, despondent thinking patterns."
Even if you're an understanding and empathetic friend or family member who knows that depression is a real condition and that the person at hand is stuck in a cycle of negative thoughts and behaviors, what should you actually do about it?
If you have someone in your life struggling with this illness, but aren't sure what to do, here are seven tips that could help:
1. Educate Yourself
If you're reading this article, it probably means you're already on this one, but it's an important step to emphasize. In a piece for PsychCentral, Therese J. Borchard, depression blogger and host of Project Beyond Blue, an online community for persons with treatment-resistant depression, lists learning about depression as her number one tip when trying to help a friend. "You don’t have to be a neuroscientist to help a friend or a family member with a mood disorder, but some basic knowledge on depression and anxiety is going to keep you from saying well-intended but hurtful things. It’s just hard to help someone if you don’t understand what she is going through," she said.
She also noted that its important to educate yourself on how your friend has personally been feeling. "With depression and anxiety, questions are crucial because the terrain is so vast and each person’s experience is so different," she said. "Your friend may be so desperate that she’s had a suicide plan in action for weeks, or she could just be under a lot of stress at work. She could be having a severe episode of major depression, or just need a little more vitamin D. You won’t know until you start asking some questions."
2. Schedule A Regular Time To See Each Other
In an article for Psychology Today by Alice Boynes, Ph.D on practical ways to help a friend with depression, Boynes suggested simply scheduling a regular meet up time. "When someone is depressed, everything feels like it takes more effort. Planning and initiating can seem overwhelming. To overcome this, have a standing 'date' that works for you both. For example, you catch up briefly after work each Thursday," she wrote. That routine meeting will help them feel less overwhelmed, plus will hopefully be weekly period of happiness for both of you to enjoy.
3. Exercise Together
Boynes also recommended trying to incorporate exercise into your time together if possible. "Exercise stimulates neurotransmitters that help lift depression," she said. "Integrate exercise into your social relationship. You can keep this low key. For example, walking to the local shopping centre or taking a dog for a walk. If you live with the depressed person, try to make a daily routine of exercising together."
4. Reiterate That You're There For Them
In her Psychology Today piece, Dr. Kim also stressed the importance of reiterating that you're there for the person. "Just offering to be there for someone with depression helps. Someone who feels trapped in a cycle of self-loathing often feels unworthy of reaching out to people around them," she said. "You don’t even have to necessarily say anything to them while you're with them. This can help put a crack in the cycle of negative self-worth and enable them to realize people still care regardless of their sad outward presentation."
5. Commiserate With Them
Kim also noted the importance of validating their feelings, as opposed to telling them that they're overreacting or lack perspective (which can be very, very tempting to do). "It’s important to acknowledge [their] concerns when they're brought up, so a person doesn’t feel they aren’t being heard or are being misunderstood, ignored, or forced to be artificially happy," Kim said. "If they don’t feel alone in seeing a problem, they feel there is potential to move forward."
6. Tell Them What You Admire About Them
In sharing her own experiences with severe depression, Borchard noted the importance of reminding the other person what you like about them and what you consider to be their strengths. She says it can be so easy for a depressed person to lose self-esteem, having someone simply remind them of their worth can make all the difference during the toughest days. You don't have to prepare a lengthy speech; just a simple comment on how much they make you laugh or how cool you think their latest hobby is will help.
7. Encourage Them To Get Professional Help
And finally, encourage the friend or loved one to get professional help if they haven't already. "Taking that step can feel scary for most people. Being there to reassure and accompany them in the process can make the difference between someone falling through the cracks or not," Kim said. Sites like MentalHealthAmerica.net and the National Alliance of Mental Health are great places to start for looking up mental health care providers and support groups in different areas.
The very real difficulties of helping a friend with depression shouldn't be overlooked; it's a hard, and sometimes thankless experience. But you definitely should never feel helpless; there are so many things both big and small you can do to help, and sometimes it's as simple as reaching out and making sure they know someone cares.