What to do when a loved one is depressed

Depression is one of the most common mental health challenges in the US. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 6% of adults and nearly 13% of adolescents experienced at least one episode of Major Depressive Disorder last year. There’s a good chance someone your circle of friends and family has or will experience depression at some point during their lives.

Major Depressive Disorder can last anywhere from two weeks to many years. There’s an abundance of information about depression available online, and many health professionals provide depression screenings. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • Depressed mood most of the day (for children, this can look like irritability)

  • Loss of interest in things, hobbies, and activities that once brought great joy

  • Changes in weight

  • Sleeping too much or too little

  • Body movements slowing down or speeding up to the point where others may notice

  • Decrease in energy

  • Feeling worthless or guilty

  • Trouble concentrating or confusion

  • Thoughts of death or suicide

While the causes, treatments, and outcomes for depression are well documented, families and friends of depressed people may find it hard to know how to help. Some of my clients say they struggle to explain their mood and behavior to loved ones, and this can cause conflict that gets in the way of the depressed person having hope for the future.

If your loved one is struggling with depression, it may help to keep the following in mind:

Depression is not laziness

Take a look back at the symptoms above. A depressed person and society’s view of a “lazy” person are identical. Depression drains energy and zaps motivation. Thinking about important and complex tasks can feel overwhelming to the depressed person. In this state, their creativity and ability to problem solve are close to 0, making once doable tasks seem impossible.

Guilt is a major symptom of this process, and depressed people have enough on their plates. As a loved one, you can help a depressed person by understanding the difficulty they are facing without judgment. You can offer to help them break down difficult tasks, brainstorm solutions, and encourage them when they get overwhelmed. They can rely on your energy and clear thinking to help, as long as your help comes free of blame or frustration.

Realize that depression is common- don’t be surprised when it touches your life

As the statistics indicate, it’s very likely that someone you know will experience depression at some point in their lives. Think of it as an inevitability. Major life changes, like graduating from school, moving, ending a romantic relationship, moving, or grieving the loss of a loved one can all lead to a depressive episode. Understanding that depression is bound to touch your life can help you identify it more quickly in others and respond in a helpful way.

The path to healing is not a straight line

In a former workplace of mine, we shared the following picture with clients to help them understand the ups and downs of getting better (we found it on GoodTherapy.org):

Healing Process.jpg

Mental wellness isn’t like getting over the flu, where you expect symptoms to diminish gradually and consistently over time. Depression can feel like waves, where one minute you feel great and the next you’re overcome with sadness. You might see someone look cheerful and productive one day, and stay in bed the next.

This is part of the process. What seems manageable one day might be too much the next. What the depressed person needs the most is compassion and understanding. Accepting that they are doing their best (and “their best” might change from day to day) will help your loved one feel supported and help you keep your cool.

Talking helps...sometimes

Talking about depression and the thoughts that fuel it is an essential component of most empirically based depression treatments. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) focuses on adjusting thoughts to be as helpful and accurate as possible, and is a highly effective treatment for depression.

That said, the symptoms of depression can make it hard for people with depression to want to talk, have the energy for self reflection, or even want to face their uncomfortable thoughts.

So what does this mean for families/friends? It means that you should check in with your loved one regularly, ready to listen. Keep in mind that their ability and desire to talk may fluctuate greatly day to day, and that’s OK. By being a consistent and supporting presence, you will represent someone they can go to when they are ready to talk.

It’s not just the mind that needs to get better

Self care is often the first thing that gets ignored when someone is depressed. This can mean slacking on hygiene, not eating well, forgetting to exercise, or stopping activities that make the body, mind, and soul feel good. Come to think of it, most of us neglect these things regularly.

It’s important to focus on the basics of self care and not take them for granted. Think about helping not only the person’s mind, but their body, environment, and their soul. Here are some simple activities that can make a big difference:

  • Encourage/support the person to wake up at the same time every day. This can help regulate sleep disturbances. Invite them to go for a walk in the morning, meet for breakfast, or arrange a phone call - bonus for video call to encourage them to get out of bed

  • Plan to cook a healthy meal together

  • Get active: go for a walk, take a bike ride, hit the beach, engage in a sport, or do situps while watching a show together- a busy body leads to a relaxed mind!

  • Engage the person’s senses: often depression makes a person feel disconnected from themselves and the world around them. Engaging the senses helps reconnect. Help the person infuse their air with relaxing aromas, create a mood lifting playlist, and fill their phone with pictures of beautiful scenes. Use your creativity to delight the senses!

You need support, too

It’s not easy when someone you care about is depressed. Because getting better can take time, it can be discouraging. Life’s demands will pop up, making it difficult to be there for your loved one. You are providing support to your loved one, so you will need support yourself. It’s a good idea to find someone you can confide in who is not directly impacted by the person’s depression, and even better if it’s someone who has experience with depression in themselves or others. It can be a good idea for family and friends of depressed people to talk to a mental health professional, who can provide insight into the illness and give helpful suggestions. Or find someone you trust who can provide a neutral, supportive perspective.

Depression is a common and difficult mental health issue, but there’s many reasons to have hope. Connection to loved ones is a major buffer against the effects of depression and can speed up the healing process.