Depression is something we can never truly understand unless we have it. The experience can be excruciating and can lead to mindsets that, for loved ones, can be painful to witness.
Learning how to effectively support loved ones with depression can sometimes seem counterintuitive, but it’s well worth it. In the end, when you learn some specific behaviors and attitudes designed to meet the person and this ailment where they’re at, the benefits can help us beyond those relationships and help us be better friends, relatives, parents and co-workers, too.
1. Practice just listening
This can be very challenging, because depression is something that attaches to our thoughts. When we love people, we want to see them happy, positive and ambitious. Depression can get in the way of this, and can sap the person of the ability to have a positive outlook.
When we offer ourselves as a place where all thoughts shared are welcome, it lessens the pressure and helps our loved one feel less alone. It’s particularly important that we do our best to understand that this is how the depressed person sees things right now. It doesn’t mean this is how things will be forever.
Understand that depression often happens in waves, and let the person go through their own process. The only exception to this is if you are genuinely afraid they’re at risk of suicide. If that concern arises, contact the national suicide prevention hotline immediately at 800-273-TALK(8255).
2. Look into resources yourself
It’s easy to think we know how to handle people because we know them, but depression doesn’t work like that. Before you yourself become exhausted, or even hopeless, educate yourself.
While depression is sometimes seen as a character flaw or something someone should just be able to “push through,” that’s simply not accurate. As a loved one, take the time to read up on depression and learn about what is going on inside the brain of the person affected. This shows the depressed person that you care, and shows you that you yourself aren’t alone.
A few helpful resources for the spouse, parent, or family member of someone who is depressed:
- How You Can Survive When They're Depressed: Living and Coping with Depression Fallout by Anne Sheffield
In addition, a lot of families have stigmas against mental health resources, so when you start reading, learning strategies, and engaging in a positive way, it can start trickling through the whole family, making the environment more conducive for happiness for all involved. You can be a leader in your family system.
3. Do not explain someone’s depression to them or minimize their feelings
Depression is a master at setting up right/wrong paradigms in relationships. When we react to the symptoms of depression in another, it can feel end up feeling awful for all involved.
For example, one way loved ones often think they’re helping is by telling depressed loved one what we think is wrong with them. This can be alienating and can make someone with depression feel less understood. It can also be tempting to attempt to “straighten out” someone with depression.
The fact is, depression is far more complex than just being “straightened out.” Allow your loved one to have their feelings. Validate them. Asking them about these feelings without trying to fix them is always better than telling them they don’t need to feel how they do.
For example, if your loved one shares that they’re feeling down, do not say “Eh, snap out of it!” or, “There’s no need to feel down. Look at how much we have to be grateful for.”
These are both invalidating (telling them they shouldn’t feel the way they feel). Validating responses are, “I understand. Is it about the same as yesterday?” or simply, “I hear you.”
4. Become a partner on their terms
If someone is being treated for their depression, there may be roles you can play for them that can be helpful. The best way to do this is to have agreements in place before playing those roles. This encourages empowerment and accountability for everyone.
First, ask how you can help. Let your loved one set the parameters (don’t force your ideas on him/her). It may be to remind someone to take their medication, to let them know if you’re concerned about how much they are sleeping, or helping them prepare certain foods that they know are healthy for them. You may wind up being a workout buddy, company at the movies or on a hike, or just someone who calls weekly to ask how they’re doing.
Depression can often be debilitating and can limit one’s ability to do things for oneself. It’s tempting to tell those we love with depression to push through, but sometimes just believing them and taking on some helpful tasks they feel they can’t do can make a big difference.
5. Be aware of the possibility of self-medication
Many people living with depression unfortunately turn to drugs and alcohol to ease the symptoms of their condition. It can be scary to see someone go through substance abuse, but there are resources out there that can help. If you can understand why they might do this, your own attitude will be much more conducive towards helping your loved one.
If you are concerned about this possibility or your loved one already struggles with substance abuse, look into resources like rehab.com (the most comprehensive list of rehab facilities online).
Also explore Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs that can help you understand the warning signs and give you ideas as to how you can help your loved one with these twin challenges. There is an art to supporting people with addiction issues just as much as there is an art to supporting people with depression.
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