My husband practically whispered it. "Honey, I don't know what to do to help you right now."
"I don't know either."
I think back on those horrible days I spent fighting to get out of my own dark well. Nothing else hurts that bad. I'm brought back to it every single time I hear someone else is fighting their own demons of depression.
As a psychologist, I'm often asked, "What can I do to help my spouse/child/friend who is depressed?"
While the answer of every person suffering through depression might be a tad different, in my experience, the answer always comes back to the need to feel loved, accepted, and not alone.
Image: Gerald Gabernig via Flickr
One thing to keep in mind is that depression is no respecter of persons... no one is immune. It has been estimated that by 2020, depression will be our second greatest epidemic worldwide. So in loving your depressed loved one, know that even if you cannot personally relate to their struggle, their struggle is not uncommon or unique. Even in the Bible, Elijah, Jonah, Jeremiah, David, and certainly Job struggled.
Do not suggest they "snap out of it," or "pull themselves up by their boot straps." About the worst thing you can do is to convey in your words, attitudes, beliefs, or behavior that your perception is that they can control it. Believe me, if they could "snap out of it," they would. No one likes feeling depressed.
Realize that depression is not just the blues. Accurate diagnosis is essential. Depression is a medical disorder that without appropriate treatment can last anywhere from a couple weeks to many years. Encourage your loved one to go to an appointment to see their doctor.
Depression can make the simplest tasks, such as taking your vitamins, feel as if it takes too much energy. Recognize you may have to make the appointment and take them to the doctor or it may not happen. If they do not have a primary care doctor, consider an appointment at a community mental health center.
Recognize that depression leads to increased risk of suicidal thoughts. If your loved one is considering suicide, a call to the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Hotline may be necessary: 1-800-273-TALK (8255). If they are in imminent danger, you may need to call the 911 or the local authorities.
Likewise, encourage them to remain active but don't expect them to take on too much. Celebrate their successes, no matter how small. Getting out of bed and getting dressed can be a huge accomplishment at times.
Make plans with them. Take a walk with them or engage them in a favorite activity. The individual battling depression also battles decreased energy, decreased interest, and decreased motivation. Without encouragement to engage, they will often become increasingly isolated and lethargic. And without the presence of a loving companion, they withdraw into the dark oblivion of loneliness.
Remain encouraging and positive, but avoid platitudes. People suffering through depression can sniff out disingenuousness a mile away. When you don't know what to say, just listen and be willing to say, "I'm so sorry for what you are going through. I wish I knew what to say." That will mean more than preaching or pretending you can relate to their pain when you can't.
Ask them how you can pray for them. Even in Christian circles it can come across as a disingenuous cliché to tell someone we are praying for them. But asking them "How can I pray for you?" shows your desire to be supportive. Then, by all means, pray for them.
Be willing to just sit and be with them. Oftentimes, we try to fill uncomfortable silence with meaningless conversation. That can be exhausting to you and to your depressed loved one. Take a lesson from the book of Job in the Bible. Show your support by just being with your loved one, sitting with them, letting them be exactly who they are in the moment.
If they are open to it (and not all are!), offer a heartfelt hug. Human touch is a powerful thing. Sometimes more is conveyed through an unrushed hug than could ever be eloquently put into words.
Above all, convey there is always hope.
Dr. Michelle Bengtson
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