Watching loved ones suffer with depression can be frustrating and hard. If you have not experienced depression, it is difficult to grasp the pain depression can cause. Yet, it is not hard to see the damage depression leaves behind. But what can you do to help? Below are five ways to support someone who is depressed.
1. Believe them
When someone is depressed, it can be easy to dismiss them or minimize their experience. You might have known people to say, “what do you have to be depressed about?” or “don’t be such a Debbie Downer.” Such statements are not only invalidating, but could also make someone struggling with depression to further isolate themselves and deepen depressed mood. It makes sense that friends and family might look for reasons someone may be depressed before understanding the nature of depression. When there aren’t clear events to point to, it challenges the belief that mood is dependent on external sources.
Think of depression like a physical illness, like a cold or the flu. Most of us get a cold and recover in a couple of weeks. However, for the most part we can function. We still go to work, go to school, hang out with friends, and can get better even if we don’t take cold medication. However, if we’re hit with the flu, we are completely miserable and can’t push past our symptoms to do what we want. If it is really bad, we could even be hospitalized. Depression can be seen as something similar. Most of us understand sadness and have had blue moods or “been in a funk.” We even understand that sometimes the things and people we love don’t make a dent in our bad mood and that we have to wait it out. Depression would be on the “flu-like” part of that mood spectrum. There are clear physical, mental, and emotional symptoms. People with depression do not want any of those things and cannot “get over it.” When someone tells you that they feel depressed, don’t assume that they are exaggerating or being negative. Ask them about what they are thinking and feeling. Accept that they are the expert of their moods and experience.
2. Encourage them to seek help
If someone you care about can’t seem to shake their depressed mood after a couple of weeks, ask them if they have talked to their primary care doctor or thought about therapy. Medication can be very effective for depression and can be provided by a primary care doctor. You don’t have to see a psychiatrist or psychiatric nurse practitioner unless you want to or your doctor feels a referral would be a better option. However, it will take several weeks for to take full effect and it might take a few rounds of adjusting before arriving at the correct medication and dosage. Therapy can also be a very helpful option, particularly if someone doesn’t want to take medication and/or doesn’t have much social support. Even if there are a lot of friends and family who are supportive, it can be easier to talk to a professional (or stranger) about his or her problems and struggles. A professional can also help them understand their experience and learn ways to cope with their symptoms. If depressive symptoms are particularly intense or severe, it may be helpful to do both medication and therapy.
You can support them by offering to take them to appointments, being an emergency contact, or asking your loved one to sign a release of information (if they are willing and comfortable) so that you can communicate with their doctor or therapist and vice versa. Having a release of information (ROI) can be incredibly helpful if something urgent arises and you need to get a hold of their provider or they need to get a hold of an emergency contact.
3. Verbalize support
When your loved one is already beating themselves up for not being able to “get over it” and feeling like a burden to their friends and family, they need to hear that you love them and that you are there for them. It is important for them to know that you do not blame them for the depression and that you know they are trying their best. You can ask them how you can support them, but many times they do not know. If they do not know, try not to be too frustrated with them. Tell them it is okay and that you are ready if they think of something. People who are depressed often feel they are not making progress quickly enough or that their efforts are too small. Help them to notice their efforts at getting better and affirm that anything they do matters and counts towards progress.
4. Act supportive
If you tell someone you will be there for them, be there for them. This is not to say that you have to be available 24/7 until they recover. Support can look like a lot of things. Some are mentioned in #2- driving them to appointments and offering to be a contact for their mental health provider. It can also look like spending time with them in various ways, such as sitting with them if they can’t leave the house, doing their favorite things with them, or engaging in physical activity. You can also offer to help out with errands or chores and check in with them about their mood.
5. Don’t rush recovery
Unfortunately, there is no set timeline for recovery. Even if someone has been diagnosed and is in treatment, there is no way to predict with 100% accuracy when they will feel better. Sometimes, they may not recover completely and have other episodes of depression. Some people start feeling better in a couple of weeks and others may take months. Understand that depression symptoms can take time to improve; often, longer than your loved one wants. They are just as impatient as you are to recover, probably even more because they are feeling pretty terrible.