What to do—and what not to do—to be supportive, and when to get more help—for your depressed loved one and for yourself.
When we’re happy it feels like everyone else is happy with us. The sun is shining. Everything seems more colorful and full of life. Food tastes better. Every happy song seems like it was written for us. Life is beautiful, and we notice everyone else who loves life too.
But when we are depressed, it’s like falling into a deep cave in the middle of winter. It’s isolating. It’s a solitary experience. We feel like no one could possibly understand how dark things are. We often lack the emotional energy to even reach out and try to connect and find understanding.
When someone we love is in that place, it’s frightening and frustrating.
We want to spring to action and make it better. We don’t like seeing those we love in pain. It’s a natural reaction. Plus, we miss them! Depression is taking them away from us. They aren’t as interested or able to do the things they used to do. We want the depression to go away, but it isn’t that simple. The first thing we must accept is that we cannot fix each other, nor should we. Our job in the face of a loved one’s depression isn’t to make it go away; it’s to support them on their own journey toward healing.
- Minimize their feelings. If someone you loved had just fallen off a cliff, would you yell, “Hey, don’t make such a big deal! You’re going to be fine.”? It’s a silly example, but for someone who is depressed their feelings can seem like being hurled off a cliff. They don’t know when or if they will land safely. There is a middle ground between minimizing their feelings and panicking. Offer support, and get support of your own as well.
- 2. Try to talk them out of it. Depression is not just a bad mood. When someone is having a low day, it’s great to share a joke or lighten the mood. Aggressive attempts to try and cheer someone up when they are depressed are counterproductive and at times, disrespectful. “Cheer up!” “Snap out of it.” “Don’t be such a grouch.” We can offer genuine, uplifting feedback to them without being disrespectful.
- Make it all about you. If a friend or your partner is depressed, it is their depression. Although it will undoubtedly affect you, they don’t need one more burden right now. This is not to say we should be dishonest in our relationships, but there is a difference between being honest and dumping on someone. In most healthy relationships, we are not going to be the cause or the solution to our loved one’s depression. We do have a choice as to whether we are going to help or hinder their recovery. If their depression is wearing on you, seek your own support.
- Encourage their choices to seek help. If they are seeking talk therapy—support them. If they are seeking other forms of therapy—cheer them on. There is a balance between support and falling into the trap of trying to be their rescuer. What seems like the best solution to you might not be what they need right now.
- Seek help if you believe their depression to be at a life threatening point. A few years ago, I nearly lost someone I love to a suicide attempt after a negative reaction to medication. He had been depressed, and things went downhill rapidly. At one point, I asked myself if I would rather risk losing his friendship if he was angry that I intervened and got help, or would I rather risk losing him to suicide? There was no question. When a loved one who has been struggling with depression begins talking about suicide or showing other signs of suicidal thoughts, seek professional assistance immediately.
- Listen without judgment. Ask questions instead of offering solutions. Offer your shoulder instead of giving advice or trying to figure out why they feel the way they do. Being a person who will listen—not wait for your turn to talk—gently and without judgment is one of the best gifts you can give the people you love, whether they are depressed or not.
In Canada and the U.S., the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). In the U.K., ring the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90.
Read more on Suicide.
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