What Depression Looks Like: How To Help Someone You Know Cope

Updated February 17, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Debra Halseth, LCSW

Do you know someone living with depression and wonder how you can help? The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 300 million children and adults live with depression. Symptoms of depression vary from person to person, making each experience with the mental illness unique. However, when someone you know is depressed, you may notice a change in their mood or energy. There are things you can do to help while keeping in mind, things to avoid.

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Let Them Know You’ll Listen

Symptoms of depression may include isolation from others. A depressed person may choose to hold in their feelings because they think they don’t matter, or no one will listen to them. Start by letting them know you are concerned. Avoid being pushy with questions. You can ask them what is on their mind or if they want to get something off their chest. They may be willing to talk but hold off on giving any advice. If they are eager to open up, ask questions to get a better idea of what they are feeling. Try not to assume you know what they mean. Show empathy to validate their feelings. Let them know you care, especially if they are not willing to speak about their feelings at this time.

Assist In Getting Support

Your friend may not realize they are depressed, or they may not know where to go or how to reach out to manage their symptoms of depression. Even if they know they have options for getting help, it may not be easy for them to take the first step. Some find it daunting to choose a therapist. If they are interested in counseling, offer to help them review their options. Help them consider factors in selecting a therapist. Assist with creating a list of questions to ask at their first session. When they are ready to make the first appointment, be there to encourage them.

Suggest Therapy Or Keep Encouraging Them To Go

If your friend or loved one isn’t in therapy to help manage their symptoms of depression, mention the option to them. Therapy provides a unique insight into one’s thoughts and feelings. It is an option that helps people work through their depression productively with personalized approaches to their problems or concerns. If they seem uninterested in the idea, try encouraging them to at least look into it. They can participate in online therapy sessions or work with a local therapist in person.

It is common for people managing major depression to attend regular therapy sessions. Sometimes a depressed person may feel like canceling their appointment if they are not in a good mood. Encourage them to keep their appointments. The same is true for any medications they are taking or other actions that are part of their treatment. Encourage them to stick with their plan. Be supportive if they want to make changes to their treatment, but encourage them to talk to their doctor or mental health specialist about their thoughts.

Offer A Helping Hand With Daily Tasks

People living with depression may feel overwhelmed by everyday tasks. Sometimes their level of energy or ability to concentrate hinders their ability to get things done. They may experience depression symptoms such as lack of sleep or inability to make decisions.  Your help may be appreciated, but they may not know how to express it in words. Ask if they need assistance with something in particular or if they need help with a task for the day. If you notice something needs to be done, ask if you can help them with it.

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For example, if they are low on food, you could ask about picking up a few things for them at the grocery store. Maybe you could offer to write their shopping list or cook a meal together. You can help them get things done around the house and make it an enjoyable task with some music and good conversation. Sometimes having company over makes completing tasks more manageable.

Keep Activity Invites Open

Lack of social or hobby interests is common depression symptoms. People living with depression and anxiety may find it challenging to reach out to others or keep a planned activity. They may feel guilty about canceling and assume others won’t want to invite them if they have a history of withdrawing in the past. Invite your friend to upcoming events, even if you know they may turn it down. Let them know you understand if they don’t accept the invite. When they feel like attending, let them know you are happy to see them.

Maintain Patience And Communication

Let your friend know you’ll be there for them as they work through their depression. Treating depression symptoms takes time. The course of treatment depends on how symptoms affect their lifestyle and the type of symptoms they experience. Symptoms of depression may come and go, and that effect can be challenging for your friend. While your friend is doing their best to manage their depression, depression doesn’t have a cure. They may feel frustrated when they have a terrible day. Some may recover in a few weeks, but each person is different.

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Staying in touch and checking in with them regularly says you are thinking about them. Keep lines of communication open when you don’t meet in person. Send a text or call them to see how they are doing or ask if they need anything. Your actions help maintain the relationship. You may find yourself doing more communicating and reaching out, which is fine. Symptoms of depression, such as withdrawal from others and lack of communication, may still be a concern but continue providing support to keep them encouraged.

Educate Yourself About Depression And Different Forms Of It

Learn about symptoms of depression and how they affect daily living. Because depression affects people differently, it is essential to understand the symptoms, different types, and how people cope. A 2017 study estimated over 17 million American adults have major depression or experienced a major depressive episode. Educating yourself helps you understand more about how depression symptoms affect your friend. Ask them about the symptoms and what they do when they occur. Educate yourself about diagnosis, treatments, and potential causes. Gaining this essential knowledge will help you have in-depth discussions with your friend.

As you learn more about depression, depression has different forms besides low mood and sadness. A depressed person may express anger, irritability, have problems sleeping, and issues with memory and confusion. Some have trouble staying focused. Others may have physical symptoms like aches, pains, or an upset stomach. Some with major depression may experience more severity in their symptoms. Your friend may feel exhausted or be in a bad mood more often. When they express their discomfort, show empathy, and let them know you’ll help them with anything they need.

Practice Self-Care And Set Boundaries

Taking care of yourself is essential, especially when getting caught up helping someone else. Helping someone you care about cope with their depression symptoms burns energy. It is common to worry about someone you care for, but remember to continue meeting your needs. Balance out your energy to avoid burnout and frustration. If you are not taking care of yourself, you won’t be helpful to your friend.

Wanting to help your friend is great, but have boundaries in place. Let your friend know the best time to call you or when it is best to get in touch with you, especially if they need to talk. You could have a plan in place that includes using a code or text if they are in a crisis. You could get your friend involved by rotating when to reach out or provide assistance.

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As you practice self-care, think about activities and things you like to do that can help you recharge. Emotionally, helping a depressed friend could have a toll on you, and such activities help maintain your mental health.

Things You Should Avoid

If your friend seems moody toward you, don’t take it personally. Their depression symptoms are not their fault, nor are they yours. You may feel frustrated or upset if they continue isolating themselves when you try to include them in plans or if they don’t follow up with you. You may feel like you need space, and that is okay. Avoid placing blame toward them or saying anything that could influence their negative feelings.

Depression symptoms require treatment from a mental health professional. Avoid trying to fix their emotions. You may not have a clear picture of what they are going through. Be mindful of how you use your words when intending to help them feel better. Maintaining positive support lets your friend know they matter to you. You can be a positive influence by reminding them of why you value your friendship and what you like about them.

Some suggest avoiding giving advice, even if you have good ideas like exercising or eating healthy. Your friend may not be interested to hear it yet. Be a listener until they show an interest in wanting to learn more. Avoid comparing their experience to others. Sometimes claiming you understand, when you don’t, may not do much to help your friend or their mood. Focus on what they are feeling at the moment. It validates what they are experiencing.

Avoid recommending they should take medication. People with major depression may take medication to help manage their symptoms. For some people, it works, and for others, it doesn’t. It is considered a personal choice. Even if you don’t believe in taking it, try to avoid the subject.

Know When to Step In

A person with major depression may feel unworthy, hopeless, and extreme sadness. Sometimes such feelings may lead to self-harm. It is essential to recognize potential warning signs of someone who may engage in self-injury or attempt to take their life. If you feel your friend is in crisis, encourage them to call their doctor, therapist, the Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-8255). Tell your friend you’ll call for them if they want you to.

Since many people live with depression, depression episodes vary from person to person. Understanding how to help your friend cope includes being a good listener, providing moral support, and letting them know you’ll be there for them. People with major depression are likely to isolate and withdraw from people that care about them. You can play a valuable role in encouraging your friend to stay productive while they cope.


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