Watching a cherished friend, family member or partner struggle with depression can cause an odd, seemingly discordant feeling — a powerful helplessness. A person we knew to have passion for their families or pets, a job or hobbies, feels a bit less bright, a bit distant, a bit (or more than a bit) like they need some help.
But most of us are not medical doctors or mental health professionals, and we’re terrified we’ll say the wrong thing or something that makes our loved one’s pain worse. So we say nothing at all or we simply ask them how they’re doing, like we haven’t observed anything at all and shrug off their response, which will likely be “OK” or a “little tired.”
Start the conversation
“People hesitate to talk about their depression. They don’t want others to be burdened by it,” psychologist Dr. Laura Ciel, cofounder of Life Advance International and past president of the Santa Barbara County Psychological Association, tells SheKnows.
Ciel says it’s better to simply come out and say, gently and with kindness, what we’ve been seeing, like, “I notice you haven’t been smiling much lately and wondered if you felt like talking," or "Normally when we go out, you seem to have fun, but lately you haven’t enjoyed the things that normally make you smile and laugh. Is something on your mind?”
People living with depression can have difficulty expressing their feelings in words, so opening the door, however slightly, can help them take the first steps in reaching out, she explains. If our loved one admits that, yes, they’ve been feeling off or depressed lately, Ciel suggests asking them what they think might make them feel better.
“If your friend or loved one says they feel very depressed, they might not be able to answer the question [about what might make them feel better],” she says. “In a situation like that, remind them that there are professionals who know how to help people feel a little bit better and encourage them to seek help.” Ciel finds that these questions are effective because “one of the markers of depression is a cognitive mindset that sets someone up to feel ineffective in anything they do. Questions like [these] help your friend/loved one identify what is in their control and what they can do to make things a bit better.”
Remaining a constant presence in our friend or loved one’s life can help them stay connected with the world and feel less isolated. According to Gabrielle Freire, a marriage and family therapist in Los Angeles, these actions can be as simple as checking in through text and email.
One of the primary signs of depression is losing interest in standard activities. This can range from standard chores and errands to favorite hobbies — and losing interest in these activities can cause the depressed person to lose their daily routines, which can, in turn, exacerbate their depression, Freire tells SheKnows.
“I would recommend that a friend supports their depressed friend by encouraging them to keep their activity plans,” she suggests. For example, you might encourage your friend or loved one to go to their Pilates class, even offering to go with them.
Small gestures count
If your friend isn’t quite up to their normal activities or their depression has reached a place at which it has begun to impact their daily life, you can get more involved on a micro level. Dr. Camila Williams, a clinical psychologist and owner of Living Well CBT, tells SheKnows that she speaks with her clients about depression in terms people would use to describe treating the flu.
"We all know when someone has the flu, they're tired, they sleep more, simple tasks wipe out their energy. It’s the same for depression,” she says. Williams suggests that small gestures, like “offering to watch the kids for a while, bringing over soup, sitting and watching reruns” can be powerful and remind your friend that they are loved. “If you can help with cooking, cleaning and childcare, do so,” she adds.
Williams says that we can suggest that our friend seeks out therapy or professional care, but if they don’t want to talk about therapy, “don't push them, but it's OK to ask and show interest.” She says that if our loved one does talk about therapy and shares that they have “handouts or tasks to try,” we can offer to help them.
Supporting a loved one through a difficult time or a significant illness can seem intimidating, but with some compassion and a willingness to ask questions and pitch in, we can hopefully make a real difference.
If you’re looking for resources for helping a friend or loved one or trying to get information about treatment for yourself, you can turn to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling them at 1-800-273-8255.