Being depressed is more than just having a bad day or feeling sad. It's a common mental health condition that can affect all aspects of life, including how you think, feel and behave, according to the American Psychiatric Association.
There are many treatment options available for people with depression, but having the support of a loved one can make a big difference in how someone manages the condition.
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But what's the best way to offer this kind of support?
Here, Jeff Temple, PhD, a licensed psychologist and Director for the Center of Violence Prevention at UTMB, explains how to help someone living with depression.
1. Learn About Depression So You Know What They're Dealing With
A good first step is to learn as much as you can about the condition your loved one is dealing with.
Depression is a mood disorder that involves persistent sadness and losing interest in usual activities, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It can look a bit different from person to person, but some common symptoms include the following, Temple says:
- Negative thoughts
- Reduced interest in doing things you used to enjoy
- Changes in sleep and eating
"However, there's quite a bit of individual variability," Temple says. Other depression symptoms might include:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Sexual dysfunction
- Thoughts of self-harm or suicide
There are several forms of depression that someone can be diagnosed with, including:
- Clinical depression (major depressive disorder): Feeling persistently sad or worthless for at least two weeks, plus trouble sleeping, changes in appetite and loss of interest in usual activities. This is the most common and most severe form of depression that affects an estimated 1 in 15 adults every year, per the American Psychiatric Association.
- Postpartum depression: A form of depression that develops after childbirth.
- Seasonal affective disorder: A form of depression that usually happens during the fall and winter, when days are colder and darker.
- Persistent depressive disorder (PDD): A mild to moderate form of depression that lasts for at least two years but is less severe than clinical depression. This is sometimes referred to as high-functioning depression.
If you or a loved one has suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. The Suicide and Crisis Lifeline can be reached 24/7 by dialing 988 on your phone.
2. Encourage Them to Open Up
Sharing inner thoughts and feelings is a vulnerable thing to do. Encourage them to open up about how they're feeling, ask questions and assure them you are a safe person to talk to.
Communication is a simple and effective way to support someone with depression, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Tell the person you care about them and ask how they feel.
When they do open up, speak to them with kindness, truly listen to their responses with your full attention and stay calm and rational.
3. Speak Kindly and Patiently
The last thing someone with depression needs is harshness or criticism, Temple says. Speak to them with kindness and offer ways you can help.
You can offer support in big and small ways, like offering to walk their dog, do their grocery shopping or help clean the house.
"Let your friend or loved one know you're someone they can turn to, and be there for them," Temple says.
4. Be an Active Listener
If someone with depression is opening up to you about their mental health, give them your full attention and try to understand what they're experiencing.
Instead of trying to fix their problem, simply listen and understand what they are saying, per NAMI.
Show them you're paying attention by making eye contact and occasionally restating what was said to show them you are hearing and understanding them.
5. Help Them Identify and Challenge Their Negative Thoughts
Depression can manifest into relentless negative thoughts that are untrue but hard to ignore. That's why Temple suggests reminding your loved one that negative thoughts are only temporary.
"If they find themselves thinking something like, 'I'm worthless and life is terrible,' don't let them accept that as truth," he says.
Instead, Temple suggests helping them challenge those thoughts. "Have them list the reasons they think they're worthless, but also list all the reasons they're not worthless. The thoughts will slowly change to something more accurate."
6. Ask if They’re Thinking of Harming Themselves
Don't be afraid to ask if they are thinking of hurting themselves. It's a sensitive topic, but checking in may ultimately save their life.
NAMI suggests asking specific questions like, "Have you thought of hurting yourself?" or "Do you ever think of killing yourself?" If they answer yes, important follow-up questions include:
- "Have you ever tried to harm yourself before?"
- "Have you ever tried to kill yourself before?"
- "Have you ever thought of how you would do it?"
- "Do you have a plan in place?"
"Asking will not make it more likely," Temple assures.
If they are considering self-harm, ramp up your efforts to get them additional help, Temple suggests.
Encourage your loved one to call the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at 988 or call yourself to be connected with resources in your area.
7. Help Them Do Things They Used to Enjoy
A common symptom of depression is losing interest in activities you once enjoyed, per the Cleveland Clinic.
Help your loved one remember their favorite hobbies and do them together. This could be activities like running, reading, watching movies, playing video games, going out to eat, crafting or anything that used to make them happy.
"When you're depressed it's so hard to do these things, but do them anyway," Temple says. "It's hard to be sad while doing something they enjoy."
8. Support Them in Finding Mental Health Help
Depression shouldn't be tackled alone. Offering support is the best thing you can do, but professional treatment may be necessary to make real progress.
Help someone with depression by being a part of the process to find a doctor or therapist who is the right fit, Temple says.
Once they've found a doctor, consider going with them to therapy sessions or listening to how treatment is going if they want to share.
3 Things to Avoid if Someone Has Depression
1. Placing Blame
Avoid blaming people with depression or rushing them to get better.
"Think about it like any other illness. You wouldn't tell someone with cancer or heart disease to 'snap out of it' or someone with COVID to stop coughing," Temple says. "Depression is real and scary and hard. Have patience."
2. Invalidating Their Feelings
Depression comes with a lot of uncontrollable emotions. If someone is experiencing an emotional roller coaster due to depression, believe them and hear them.
Saying things like, "Things could be worse" or "Everything happens for a reason" may seem like an attempt to cheer someone up, but these sentiments can actually be hurtful.
Don't brush off their feelings; instead, affirm them by saying things like, "I hear you" and "Your feelings matter to me."
3. Guilt-Tripping Them
It's common for depression to make people withdraw and act differently. Making them feel guilty for their depression will only make it worse, especially because there's a good chance they feel guilty already.
If they cancel or flake on plans, respond kindly and tell them you understand. Don't take it personally if the dynamics of your relationship change while they depressed.
What to Do If They Reject Help
1. Don't Pressure Them
Getting treatment for depression is an important yet intimidating step to take. If your loved one says they're not ready to get help yet, allow them to make that decision in their own time.
In the meantime, consider helping them figure out a smaller step they can take toward progress, according to Mental Health America. Start with their work life, relationships, stress levels or sleep, for example.
2. Stay Alert
Depression comes in waves. One day your loved one may feel great and other days they're at a low. Stay alert and continuously check in with how they're feeling, even when things seem to be going well.
You can ask questions like, "How are you doing?" and "How are you getting by?," per NAMI.
Understand what their triggers are that could signal a depressive episode. The more you ask, the more you'll know.
3. Take Care of Yourself
Helping someone with depression can feel challenging, especially because you don't want to make it worse for your friend or loved one. Temple says the best thing you can do is be there for them, but also take care of yourself, too.
"Caring for someone who is depressed is taxing. It's easy to become frustrated, which can result in doing or saying something hurtful that will make you feel guilty and the depressed person more depressed," he says.
In other words, put your oxygen mask on first.
"Once you accomplish that, let your friend or loved one know you're someone they can turn to," Temple says.
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.