Depression is one of the most common and treatable emotional disorders in the U.S. It can feel life changing and distressing to see loved ones struggle under its influence. At The Northwest Catholic Counseling Center we believe life is possible during, through and after a depressive episode. Here are suggestions to help support people experiencing depression.
Be present: Depression isolates. Simply continuing to interact with people as usual can be a way to show them that they matters more to you than their depression. If they tell you they need to be alone, listen to them even if you don’t agree that is best. Ask them if you can follow up with them. If they agree, it is important to do so when you said you would. If they do not agree, let them know you will still be here for them when they are ready.
Listen: People experiencing depression are struggling with a disorder that saps them of energy and pleasure and fills their mind with terrible thoughts. If someone you care about has depression, ask them how they are and mean it. Ask follow-up questions. Show curiosity and allow them a supportive and kind outlet to express themselves. Be willing to be uncomfortable. Do know your limits for when and what you are able to listen to and stick to them.
Empathize: Empathy does not mean you have to have the exact same experience as someone or know exactly what a person is going through to care about him or her. When listening with empathy, try saying things like “that sounds hard. I’m sorry you’re going through that.” Try naming feelings you hear and then ask if that’s right. Ultimately it’s not about saying the perfect thing. There is no right thing to say that will magically fix how a person is feeling. It is better to say something than nothing, even if what you say is, “I don’t know what to say, but I’m glad you told me.”
Ask them: Ask them if they want help and what would be helpful. Many individuals have had several depressive episodes and may know from trial and error things that help more or less. Simply asking reminds them you care and respect their guidance, and it can be an opportunity for them to focus on what is helpful. If depression makes it hard for them to articulate what they need, try expressing what helped you when you felt that way. They are the experts in their own experience, so be prepared to be wrong and accept their guidance. Treat them with kindness and respect.
Offer an alternative perspective: People with depression have a constant companion in their disorder. When you spend time with them, be someone willing to talk about their experience but remember that depression is something a person lives with, it is not their life or all that the person is. Sometimes a great way to offer support is to be a distraction. Invite them to things you enjoy. Respect their autonomy by allowing them to ignore the invite or say no as many times as they need to, or even to say, “stop inviting me”. Don’t make the assumption for them that they won’t want to go or that your invitation will be an imposition or bother. In fact, it’s okay to ask what bothers them.
Ask them directly if they’re having thoughts about suicide: This one can feel scary. You may worry about planting the idea in their head, or speaking in a way that encourages them to act on these thoughts. Many people experience suicidal thoughts.
Asking them will not be the reason they take action on these thoughts. Don’t be afraid to ask. People with depression are not fragile; they are often incredibly strong and resilient, even if they don’t fully see themselves that way all the time. Asking about suicidal thoughts lets them know “I’m here. I see you. I don’t want you to go away.” If they are thinking about killing themselves, here are some local resources to offer them for additional support: If they have already hurt themselves, support them in getting to an emergency room or calling 911. If they are still only thinking about suicide and they are in counseling already, encourage them to talk about this with their counselor.
As we offer support, it is important to remember that we are a person, too. On an airplane, in the case of an emergency we are directed to secure our own oxygen masks before we assist others. Doing the emotional equivalent is good advice.
Educate yourself on what depression is and what it isn’t: It can be helpful to address your own fears and stereotypes with sound information. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be an expert. You cannot and should not try to be a therapist to a loved one. Here are two resources to learn more:
Take care of yourself: Manage your own physical and emotional health with things like good sleep, nutrition, exercise, meditation, and engagement with positive people and activities in your life. Depression is not contagious, but it can be hard to witness someone suffering. It can also be hard to fight our desire to fix things in the way we think is best. You didn’t cause their depression, and you aren’t responsible for managing or curing it. To the extent that it is healthy for you, try not to take their suffering personally.