It’s hard to be close to someone with depression and to witness their suffering and the pain. At the same time, it can be very frustrating to experience the apathy that is often one of the symptoms of the illness. Many ask themselves: “Why can’t she just toughen up?” Parents, siblings, significant others and friends will themselves become worn out by concern, frustration and sorrow over those that they care about. Yet it’s important to realize that it is the depressed person who needs to rid themselves of depression; the people on the periphery cannot do it for them.
But what can you do if you want to support and help?
- Understand what depression is, and what it’s not
I have previously written that to be depressed is like coming from another planet. This explains why it’s such a lonely illness. The person suffering from depression believes that nobody understands them (and they are partially right). As it’s an illness very much affecting thought and emotion, many of their thought processes will emerge as irrational (seen from the outside).
For example, the depressed have the tendency to paint everything black. When something negative happens, this will generally be felt to be EXTREMELY negative by people suffering from depression. Even positive events and situations will be twisted into the negative. As an example; a depressed person receives a dinner invitation (something positive), but then finds out that their invitation was sent a week later than the invitations sent to the other guests. This leads to deeper depression, as the event is seen as a rejection. This filtering is a so-called thought fallacy; an erroneous and irrational way of thinking; a distortion of reality which leads to negative emotions and reactions.
Other thought fallacies commonly found in the depressed are polarizing (thinking black and white), over dramatizing (to make a catastrophe out of a trifle), personification (to take the guilt for something out of their control), blaming (the opposite, to refuse to take responsibility for something they actually were responsible for) and generalizing (to conclude the common from the specific, such as “nobody will ever love me”, or “all men are evil”).
Those affected by depression are of course not thinking in this way for fun. It’s a major symptom of the illness. And what makes it worse is that the depressed are in general not aware that their thinking is distorted. And therein lays an important key to getting rid of depression. An important initial step toward freedom from depression is to realize to what extent and in which way your thinking is unhealthy. Then you need to learn how to think differently (by way of techniques found within cognitive behavioral therapy – CBT for example). It’s a gradual process and it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen over time.
You have to understand the illness in order to be able to help. That’s why the first thing you should do as next of kin is to read up on the illness and to understand what it does to the emotions and thought processes of the afflicted.
- Be a cheerleader – but avoid pestering the ill
When you are depressed, your will is ill. This is one of the main reasons that depression is such a persistent illness. The sick may not even have the energy to get out of bed. To get rid of depression can be like running a marathon – it takes a long time, and it’s painful. But oh the joy when you reach the finish line! To be cheered along during the process is very important when you are struggling with the toughest hills.
When you are fighting your way out of depression, you need to win a thousand battles against yourself. You need to get out of bed, to go out for walks, to exercise, to go to therapy, to train your mind and so forth. Motivation from the sidelines is often the enabler to success when the goal is to beat depression. The way I see it, this is probably the most important positive thing you can do to help – encourage the ill to continue fighting, however long it takes, and regardless of the number of relapses along the way. I was fighting my own depression for several years before I was finally able to consider myself as being fully recovered. That’s how long it can take, and to receive encouragement along the way is really important.
But don’t overdo it; if your encouragement is seen as pestering, your efforts may be counterproductive.
- Enable and support achievement
Another important source of negative emotions within the depressed, is feeling a low level of achievement and mastery in life. The ill may not be able to attend school or work, and the depressed notice that people around them succeed to a higher extent than themselves (more money, a better love life, more kids, nicer house, more expensive car, higher job status etc.). It’s extremely important to gradually build a sense of achievement. The way to achieve this is to work from a low level in the beginning. You start from such a low level that you are bound to succeed. Some examples: you go to the party, albeit just for an hour; you go to work or school, but just for half a day; you go for a walk every day, although it’s a short one.
- Set expectations, but not too high
Many who suffer with depression experience that people treat them as sick, that those around them handle them with care, and that the expectations of them are not set at the same level as for others. I believe that this is unhealthy, and that this may worsen the condition. Imagine being continually treated as someone who is ill – won’t that undermine your own self-esteem? If you are all the time allowed to break appointments for example, there will be little incentive to change for the better. I believe we should treat the afflicted as equals, albeit where expectations are set at realistic levels so as to not to damage the above mentioned feeling of achievement.
- Bring the afflicted to joyous activities
Research shows us that there are many activities that provide positive and measurable effects on health, energy levels and mood. Here are some of them: exercise, to be in nature, to dance and sing, to laugh. All of these activities are beneficial to all; both to the healthy and to the ill. These activities provide win-win-win effects; you do something social, something with positive health effects, and something that is fun. And these need not be extensive or expensive activities; it could merely be a walk in the neighborhood.
You can also ask the depressed, listen to him or her, ask what works best when you want to support. We are all unique individuals, and what works for me may not work for you.
And finally, take care of yourself in the process. You won’t be able to help anyone if your own mood and energy founders as a result of your efforts to assist.
Read more in Rise from Darkness, a self-help book about how to overcome depression, filled to the brim with scientifically proven techniques you can employ to improve life.
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