Tips for Helping a Friend or Loved One with Depression

If you have a friend or loved one who is depressed, you may feel uncertain as to how to help them. You want to reach out and offer support, but you don’t want to hurt their feelings or offend them if you say the wrong thing. One of the worst things you can do is ignore it, or ignore their suffering and pretend that everything is fine. Things aren’t fine – and their depression affects everyone around them – including you.

Following are 17 tips to help you help them:

  1. Educate yourself about depression. You don’t need to know everything, but understand the facts about this challenging disorder. There are many resources – both online and offline – available to learn the basics. Read up on the symptoms, causes, and treatment. Also learn about the warning signs of suicide. Don’t naively assume that the person you care about would never harm himself – depression can cause even the strongest person to consider suicide.
  2. Express your concerns to your loved one in private. In many cases, people don’t even realize they are depressed. And when they do, they may think they are hiding it from everyone else. When you do approach him, remember that this is not his fault – and remind him of the same thing.
  3. Accept that you might not get a favorable reaction. Hopefully you will, but if not, don’t take it personally. Depression is an illness and not everyone is ready to face it. Your loved one may be in considerable denial due to shame, guilt, pride, or any number of other reasons. If you are met with resistance – or even hostility – let him know how much you care and that you are there for him.
  4. Don’t try to talk your loved one out of his depression, or minimize it as something he can overcome if he would only “get a grip on things”, “pray harder”, and so on. People who are depressed can’t simply “snap out of it”. This is a serious illness and most need treatment to get better.
  5. Be patient. If you’ve never experienced depression yourself – real depression, not just a couple of blue days now and then – it can be very difficult to really understand what it’s like. But do your best to put yourself in his shoes. Accept that your loved one may feel scared, alone, worthless, hopeless, vulnerable, angry, and / or completely overwhelmed. Little things may be irritating or upsetting to him. Just getting through each hour may feel like a monumental accomplishment. What often looks like laziness is the depression – it’s an illness that can completely drain one’s motivation and energy.
  6. Communicate directly. Make it clear that you want to help and ask what you can do to help. Your loved one may be reluctant to reach out for fear of burdening you or imposing on you. By offering, you help alleviate that fear.
  7. Extend a helping hand. Offer to run some errands, help out with the kids, do the laundry, or drive him to a doctor’s appointment. Again – each of these things may feel overwhelming when depressed. A sincere offer to help can mean a lot.
  8. Don’t try to be his therapist. Often, just feeling heard can be very helpful to someone who is depressed. Talking and just letting the feelings out can be very helpful. Don’t judge or offer any advice unless he asks, and if he doesn’t, don’t be afraid to ask if he would like to hear your thoughts in response to whatever was just disclosed.
  9. Be willing to listen – to a point. People who are depressed – especially men – often keep everything inside. Sadly, this just makes the depression worse because it reinforces their sense of being all alone in their pain. When he does talk, listen without judgment and thank him for trusting you enough to open up. Talking is often cathartic. But there’s a caveat here – wallowing in one’s misery by going over and over the same woes day in and day out for weeks on end is detrimental. If that pattern persists, strive to steer conversations in a productive, problem-solving direction and set limits on the amount of time spent listening.
  10. If he’s not already in treatment, encourage him to get professional help. If he resists, remind him that this is a serious illness, not a flaw or sign of weakness that he can easily overcome on his own. Remind him gently that if he had cancer, diabetes, or a broken bone, he’d go to see a healthcare professional right away. Depression is no different. If he needs help, e.g. finding a therapist or getting to and from appointments, offer to help him out in whatever way you can.
  11. Don’t overdo it, however. You don’t want to do everything for your loved one. The line between supporting and rescuing / enabling can be difficult to discern at times. The goal isn’t to foster dependence – rather, it’s to support, encourage, and help.
  12. Elicit the help of others. You don’t need to do this all by yourself – ask close friends or family members to help out. This not only provides additional support for your loved one, but also lets him know that a lot of people really care. It also takes pressure off of you so that you don’t quickly become depleted, isolated, or depressed yourself.
  13. Don’t be afraid to set boundaries (as mentioned above in tip 9). This can be extremely difficult for many people. For example, if your loved one is frequently lashing out at you or wants to talk for hours each day, you will need to gently but firmly set some boundaries. Let him know that, while you’re willing to listen and truly want to be supportive, you’re not willing to tolerate verbal abuse and that you, unfortunately, do have limits to your time but want to be there for him as much as your schedule allows.
  14. Initiate and encourage enjoyable activities. It may be just a 15 minute walk, a brief game of cards, or going to grab a bit to eat. Don’t be insistent if he says no, but continue to invite him from time to time and encourage him to do things he used to enjoy on his own as well. Sometimes the hardest thing for people who are depressed is to get moving. Once they do that, inertia often kicks in and they end up feeling a sense of accomplishment. Physical activities (like walking, jogging, biking, or even shooting some hoops) are especially beneficial for depression because they boost endorphins – the feel-good chemicals in the brain.
  15. Take any threats or warning signs of suicide very seriously. Far too many people have brushed threats off, thinking the person wasn’t serious or just wanted attention, only to end up mourning the suicide of a loved one and feeling guilt and regret for years to come. That being said, when people are determined to kill themselves they will usually find a way regardless. But don’t ignore any threats of suicide or any behaviors or signs that suggest your loved one is contemplating it. If you have any reason to believe he’s at risk of harming himself, call his therapist (if he has one), 911, or a suicide hotline. Remove any weapons or other potentially lethal objects (e.g. medications).
  16. Don’t neglect to take care of yourself. Helping a loved one who’s depress can be very draining at times. Make sure you are getting plenty of rest, eating well, exercising, and spending time with others who are there for you. It’s impossible to give of yourself when you’re depleted. Consider getting involved in a support group if one is available.
  17. Never give up on your loved one. Trying to help and be supportive of someone who is depressed can be exasperating at times. It’s okay to feel frustrated – you’re only human. If you need to set some limits or spend less time with the person, then do so. But one of the worst things you can do is to turn your back completely and abandon the person. Guilt and feelings of worthlessness often go hand in hand with depression. Abandonment will only intensify these feelings, and may trigger a suicide attempt.

Ultimately, there is only so much you can do to help someone who is depressed. At some point, they must be willing to make some effort to seek professional help or take other measures to get better. You can’t force that on them (unless they are suicidal and require an involuntary hospitalization). These tips are meant to be guidelines, as each situation is different. Hopefully they will help you help a depressed friend or loved one when you’re feeling at a loss.

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