Depression can be a hard one to understand, especially if you’ve never experienced it first hand yourself. Learning to support a loved one with depression is not intuitive when what we want more than anything is to offer help.
Someone I love is struggling with depression, and it’s been hard for me to understand. I’ve had been periods in my life where I’ve felt blue or unmotivated to get out of bed, but I’ve also bounced right back. I’ve watched how depression can become debilitating and overpowering. I’ve seen depression take the light out of my daughter’s eyes. The struggle is real, and as a mom, I want to “fix” the problems and make the pain go away. I want to scream “THIS IS NOT FAIR!”
But I know she is learning and growing through this process. I can see little glimmers of light and know she is still in there behind this cloud of darkness. For now, I feel enough faith and hope to carry her through to the other side because I know there is another side.
If someone you love is struggling with depression, you can probably relate. In my research, I found ten useful ideas to offer support in the most meaningful ways.
Our intentions are well-meaning, but these comments often make things worse than better. Saying things like: You just need to get out of the house, look on the bright side, try to think positive, or maybe a little sunlight will help — create the exact opposite effect.
Depression is not just a matter of having a bad day or feeling sad; it is a mental illness and something they can’t just snap out of and get over. Statements like these deepen their helpless feelings. Think before you speak. If what you’re saying starts with “You should…” STOP! A better approach would be to offer words of encouragement. “I believe in you,” “I love you,” “I’m here to support you,” “I care for you,” “I think you are strong,” and “I know you can get through this.”
The fascinating thing about advice is most people don’t want it, especially the unsolicited kind, yet we love to give it freely. While offering advice helps us feel better, telling a depressed person what they should or shouldn’t do only makes them feel worse. Keeping new information to myself is one of the hard parts for me as a parent. It has been my role to offer suggestions and solutions for her whole life, and now I have learned it’s more valuable to bite my tongue.
Unsolicited advice includes: “Have you tried changing your diet?” “Maybe you should see a doctor or therapist,” or “you probably just need more sleep.” It’s better to ask questions like: What have you tried? What information have you heard to be helpful, or I’ve learned a few things about depression would you be interested in hearing about it? These questions put the control back in their court.
It’s not because they don’t love or care about us, but because they feel overwhelmed and don’t want to overwhelm us. The sadness and dark cloud can be a lot to deal with, and a depressed person doesn’t want to make their loved ones feel bad or burdened. Sometimes they need some space, and so you can gently remind them of your love and support and let them know you’re there for them when they are ready to talk or reengage.
Depression tells you lies like: people don’t care about you, people are going to give up on you, people are going to leave you. As a supporter, we need to affirm and reaffirm how we feel and how we want to support our loved one.
As a supporter, we need to be taking care of ourselves. We need to be able to communicate how we can and cannot offer support. It is especially important to not take on the role or responsibility of “fixer” because we cannot fix someone’s depression. Trying to fix or change someone is exhausting and more importantly, it doesn’t work. Be clear and set boundaries about what works for both of you.
It is common for a depressed person to seem disconnected or uncommitted because they don’t show up, leave early, cancel plans, or push us away. It’s natural to assume these actions reflect how the person feels about you. It can be hurtful. It’s vital to remember it’s the depression talking not the person you love, so don’t make it personal. Depression can feel so overpowering that regular interactions seem impossible.
We can’t make someone depressed in the same way we can’t make them better. If it is someone who has a major depressive disorder we blame ourselves and consider ourselves responsible for how they feel. If we take on that kind of responsibility and guilt, it will burn us out and keep us from being the support our loved one needs.
I know it feels frustrating sometimes because you don’t know what to do or say, but ultimatums, threats and “If then” statements only makes the depressed person feel trapped and helpless and often makes them feel worse. If they could “just get over it” they would, and tough love isn’t the magic formula to kick them out of a funk.
They might push us away, or not show up but we need to be consistent in reminding them you are still there. It helps to know you have someone you can rely on, someone who cares, someone who is there can make all difference.
It’s normal to want to share experiences to show you can relate, but there is a difference between Empathy and Sympathy. While we may believe sharing similar experiences helps them see we can relate unless we’ve had depression we really don’t know or understand on the same level. Sometimes they just need us to listen, to feel valued and heard.
Where are you at today? On a scale from one to ten, how do you feel? Sometimes we get scared and don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room. We worry about saying the wrong thing. Remember it’s okay to ask about the depression directly. Often it makes the depressed feel good to know you care enough to ask.
There are all kinds of uniquely different circumstances involved in helping a loved one with depression. Words of affirmation seem like a small token but can mean so much. Remember to say I love you often, remind them you are there to offer support, encourage them with what you believe to be true — “You can do this,” “you are strong,” “I know you will pull through.”
Using these tips allows us to offer more meaningful support and keeps us from feeling drained and helpless. It’s not always easy to love someone with depression, but when we start using some of these tips and strategies, it becomes easier and not quite as daunting.
What has helped you be a better support to a loved one with Depression?
Through the power of story, nationally recognized journalist Jane Clayson Johnson shines a light on the desperate, dark, and lonely reality faced by those who struggle with clinical depression. At once hopeful and heart-wrenching, Silent Souls Weeping examines the stigma and isolation associated with depression, as well as the dangers of perfectionistic tendencies. This important book opens the door for a new level of honesty and helpfulness, both for those who suffer from depression and for their family members, friends