Watching someone close to you experience depression can be challenging. Feeling empathy for another person's situation can make you want to make them feel better or give them advice. However, depression is a mental health condition that can be challenging to cope with, and advice might not be beneficial. How to help someone who is experiencing depression is not necessarily advising them or “cheering them up”. Rather, there are ways you can show those you love that they're not alone and that you aim to support them.
Step One: Understand The Symptoms And Warning Signs Of Depression
Sadness and depression are different states, but it can be hard to differentiate without professional training. Because everyone experiences the world with a unique perspective, you might not understand what someone is going through from the outside.
However, understanding the symptoms and warning signs of depression can be valuable in understanding your friends. Educating yourself on what depression may look like when you are not the one experiencing symptoms can guide you in how to react.
Symptoms Of Depression
Symptoms of depression can vary. However, knowing the symptoms might give you a better idea of what someone is going through.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, symptoms of depression may include but are not limited to the following:
- Changes in sleeping patterns (difficulty sleeping or sleeping too much)
- Changes in eating habits (decreased or increased appetite)
- Feelings of sadness, helplessness, emptiness, or numbness
- Low self-esteem and feelings of worthlessness
- Slower movements, actions, or speech
- Fatigue and lack of energy
- Loss of desire to engage in previously enjoyed activities
- Difficulty concentrating
- Thinking about suicide or expressing interest in it*
If you or someone you love is experiencing suicidal thoughts or urges, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or text 988 to talk to someone over SMS. The volunteers at the Suicide Prevention lifeline are available 24/7 to offer support for those who are at suicide risk, people with training in this area.
Variances In Depression Symptoms
The symptoms listed above are common in major depressive disorder (MDD), but there are other depressive or mood disorders that people in your life might be experiencing. For example:
- Dysthymia Or Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD): A form of depression characterized by low-grade depressive symptoms that occur for two or more years
- Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD): A situational form of depression caused by changes in the seasons or weather, often during winter or in cloudy areas
- Post-Partum Depression: Post-partum depression is common in new parents, including adoptive or foster parents, and involves depression symptoms after the birth or adoption of a new child.
- Bipolar Disorder: A mental health condition consisting of major depressive episodes often accompanied by mania or hypomania, periods of extreme or moderate energy and hyperactivity
Depression may also occur alongside other mental health disorders, such as eating disorders, psychotic episodes, or anxiety. This phenomenon is known as comorbidity, and it can result in different symptoms. Individuals with depression may have increased risk for some of these other disorders. Additionally, depression might be expressed differently among age groups and identities. For example, depression in children and adolescents may manifest as behaviors like complaining of physical aches and pains.
Step Two: Offer Support And Encouragement
Your relationship with the person experiencing depression might determine your next steps. For example, if you're a parent or guardian looking to guide your child or teen, you may have more control over offering support and can bring your child to a therapist for professional guidance.
However, offering support might look different if you're an adult helping an adult friend, family, or spouse. While you can't make someone seek therapy, feel better, or change their life, you may be able to provide them with love and support. According to studies, social connection is essential to mental health and well-being, so offering positive qualities like social kindness, love, and guidance may help someone feel less alone.
Express Your Concern (And Offer Your Support)
The person experiencing depression might not realize you're concerned about them or want to support them until you express it. They also may not suspect they might be experiencing depression.
Speaking with them and gently discussing what you've noticed could be helpful. Instead of telling them they "have depression" (only a licensed professional can make this diagnosis), let them know you've been noticing some symptoms that seem like depression and are concerned about them.
You may suggest seeking treatment with a mental health care professional, but realize that starting treatment is a decision that they must come to on their own. Listen carefully to what they have to say, and simply offer your own encouragement. If they aren’t ready, respect their boundaries.
If you don't want to talk about what you've noticed, you can also tell the person you're there for them and ask them how you might help. In addition, you might add that they can ask you for support with anything. Adding specific examples, like helping them go grocery shopping, make a difficult appointment, or sign up for a support group, can also be beneficial. Those experiencing depression might not know how to help themselves, so being specific can give them something they can ask for when they're struggling.
If someone is unaccustomed to experiencing depression, they may not know how to find support or what to do. While you might be able to offer support and comfort, other resources might be helpful as well.
It may help to discuss your feelings about therapy. For example, if you attend therapy sessions, you could explain how your therapist has helped you and tell them how they can find a mental health provider.
For example, online therapy platforms like BetterHelp allow individuals to connect with certified counselors from the comfort of their homes. Telling someone about these platforms or mentioning research that shows online therapy is effective for treating depression might encourage them to reach out for support.
If they're receptive to the idea, offering assistance setting up appointments might also be helpful. If they agree and ask you to help them start therapy, you can complete the steps with them beside you or be there for them while they sign up for treatment.
Step Three: Support Them Through Being Present
Someone experiencing depression might find life more challenging. Regardless of if they seek treatment, you can ask them for permission to support them in their life. Suggest specific tasks that you can help them with, as they may not have the bandwidth to direct you.
You can consider the following:
- Spend time with them regularly, share a hobby or other activity with them, or invite them to social activities.
- Become their workout partner, as an activity like walking outside can boost mental health and mood.
- Offer to run errands or help with household chores like grocery shopping or laundry.
- Help organize household chores
- Provide a safe place where they can express their feelings without judgment.
For someone experiencing symptoms of severe depression, gestures like these may show them that you see and care about them.
If they are a family member, and are open to trying it, you may offer to go to family therapy sessions with them. Attending therapy sessions with family members may be a way for an individual to seek help that doesn’t make them feel as though the focus is entirely on them. Don’t let past failures keep you from trying again if your loved one seems receptive, but also don’t push if they give you a firm no.
If they aren’t ready for that step, you may also think about looking into support groups for yourself, where they can guide your understanding of depression and offer ideas and resources for those who are supporting people experiencing major depression or going through emotional crisis. The Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance is a group that offers online support and resources. Depression affects more than just the person experiencing symptoms. A loved one’s depression can affect your own mood and outlook, so be vigilant, especially if their depression worsens.
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