Depression can pose very big challenges for those afflicted. It’s also important to remember that depression can be very challenging for those who love someone who is depressed. Having a loved one who is struggling with depression can create feelings of helplessness, frustration, and hopelessness, and it can really strain relationships.
Here are three simple tips for those who love someone struggling with depression:
1. Ask about their needs. Although there are common symptoms of depression, the experience of being depressed can be highly individual. Everyone has his or her own unique way of coping with it. One of the best ways to help is to be direct and ask specifically and frequently what helps and what doesn’t. Don’t assume what would make you feel better will make your loved one feel better. If you do something to try to be helpful or supportive like buying them a book about depression, ask them if they found that helpful. Let them know that you won’t be hurt or insulted or think they are unappreciative if they don’t find something helpful. Be clear that supporting them and helping where possible is your top priority.
2. Don’t try to cheer them up. The first impulse for many people with a depressed loved one is to try to help change their feelings from negative to positive. This may seem logical and that it can only be helpful, but it can really backfire and make a depressed person feel worse. The intensity and duration of depressive symptoms will often vary significantly. Respect the current experience of each person and know that although they may appear overwhelmed or in terrible pain, the feelings will almost always come only in “doses” that the person can handle. It can be very powerful to simply validate your friend’s difficult feelings with simple phrases that let them know you have empathy and understand how hard these feelings can be for them. For example, respond with statements like, “I know how much you’re hurting now,” rather than, “Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon.”
3. Avoid trying to “fix it” or offer solutions. Another tendency for many people trying to help a loved one who is depressed is to try to offer solutions and ways to “fix” the situation. Part of the difficulty of depression for many people is a sense of powerlessness. Telling your loved one specific things to do to help themselves can inadvertently increase feelings of powerlessness and dependency. Instead, try to lead them to possible solutions by gentle questioning based on observations of what seems to help them and what doesn’t. For example, if you noticed that your loved one seemed to do better after taking a walk, ask them if they wouldn’t mind accompanying you while you walk your dog rather than telling them they should be going for a walk because they clearly felt better when they did.