10 Ways You Can Help Someone With Depression
It’s hard to be a friend or family member to a person suffering from depression, when all you want is to help, but you don’t know how.
A while back I wrote a post (5 Things You Can Do for Someone Struggling with Depression) which is by far my most read post so far. What has been fun about this post is that I have received quite a lot of feedback over time, both criticism and praise, much of it coming from people that suffer from depression. I thus thought it was time to write an updated version, where I integrate the feedback I have received. The list is based on the feedback, my own 11 years of fighting depression, as well as research on what helps against depression.
Here is a list of things you can do to help someone who is depressed, you suspect is suffering from depression:
1. Be a fellow human being
The most important thing you can do for a person who is depressed is to just be there for him or her. You don’t have to do anything special or say anything special. Just be there. Stop by, share a cup of coffee, talk about anything, just normal stuff. It helps, even if you might think it doesn’t. One of the worst parts of being depressed is when people around you start to withdraw away from you, out of fear of not knowing how to treat the depressed person. Just treat him or her as you would anyone else. That in itself will help!
2. Ask the depressed how you can help
In the US alone, there are an estimated 16 million people struggling with depression. These are 16 million individuals, with vastly diverse backgrounds and causes of depression. The intensity of the depression they suffer from will differ and so will the duration of the illness. Each case of depression is unique. That means that it’s a very good idea to ask the person you want to help, how that person would like you to act. Just ask him or her: what is the best way I can help you cope with depression?
Feel free to ask several times, over time, how you can help best. Hopefully, the person who is ill will get better over time, and his/her needs will thus also change.
3. Be patient – it can take time to get well from depression
It will often take time to get rid of depression, or to reduce the intensity of it. It can be very frustrating, when you seek to help, and nothing seems to take. When everything you suggest is just brushed away on the account of “that will never work” or “I tried it already, and it didn’t work.”
When I was ill, my sister and mother suggested to me that I seek therapy for many years, before I finally heeded their advice, and found a therapist. That’s just one example showing the value of never giving up, even if the person who is depressed is resisting your suggestions.
One note of caution here, suggestions are helpful, but don’t hassle the ill person. That will just cause him or her to take a step away from you, or even worsen the depression.
4. Invite the depressed to joyful activities
If you are a family member or close friend, you are likely to know the depressed person in depth. You know a great deal about the person’s likes and dislikes, what makes him/her happier. You even know what made the person happy before depression struck. Take the initiative to do more of those activities that can elevate her/his mood. Here it will also help to talk to the depressed person (see point 2).
What does she/he want, despite of the depression? If in doubt, choose something that involves physical activity, like going for a walk, because this has a positive effect anyway. If the sick person has little energy, go for just a short walk, or maybe even just walk around the house or back and forth to the mailbox. The ambitions can never be too low when it comes to getting started with physical activity, which is such an important step.
5. Understand what depression is and what it is not
Depression is a fairly broad diagnosis, which contains millions of different individual cases. There are several different types of depression, but here are some key symptoms: persistent depressed mood, a feeling of hopelessness, low self-esteem, sleep problems, concentration failure, memory loss, procrastination behavior/procrastination in decision making, dizziness, appetite problems, energy deficiencies. Read what the American Psychiatric Association writes about depression here.
Some depression suffers experience intense feelings of pain, others experience an emotional void. My journey through depression was characterized by intense depression and daily suicidal thoughts. For me, depression was absolute hopelessness, everything in my life colored in black.
Depression often goes hand in hand with anxiety (and other illnesses, both mental and somatic, which can be both a triggering factor and a result). And it can be difficult to know where the anxiety ends, and the depression begins. If you even wonder if you are suffering from depression, you should consult your GP for an examination. You as a relative may also encourage a friend or family member you see struggling to go to the GP for an examination.
A person who is depressed will often feel that no one understands him/her. You as a relative or friend can prevent this by reading up on the illness and to get a better understanding of depression. An important element is that depression often distorts the mind of the sick person. You filter away most of the positives of what happens, and often only see the negative. In addition, the negative is amplified and made ubiquitous. Everything becomes dark, how you view yourself, your surroundings, and your future.
Especially the cognitive techniques address this distortion. For me, the cognitive techniques were totally necessary for me to really recover. You will find an overview of common thought fallacies in Rise from Darkness or 14 Steps to Happiness.
6. Read up on techniques that help against depression
The good news is that plenty can be done to help with depression. Positive socializing (see paragraph 1) helps. Exercise and physical activity have a significant positive outcome. Medication can help many, especially the very ill. Therapy can be a great support for many, and for me it was an essential part of the improvement process. I think anyone who suffers from depression should make at least one wholehearted attempt to go into therapy. You as a relative or friend can encourage the sick person to do this.
Cognitive techniques can be highly effective in removing thought distortions. Gratitude exercises will help the sick person to gradually focus and see more of the positive things in life. You can help the ill person with such exercises and techniques.
But you can also get started quickly and with remarkably simple support measures, such as inviting the person to take part in physical activities and exercise. Just invite him or her to go for a walk!
In 14 Steps to Happiness – you will find a comprehensive program in 14 steps, based on what research tells us is effective against depression. You can read the book, and base your suggestions on the steps in it.
7. Be a cheerleader—but avoid pestering the ill
Being depressed can seem like fighting thousands of battles with yourself. Being depressed, you often know what you should be doing, like getting out and taking a walk, for example, something that will elevate your mood. But in the depressed person the energy or belief that anything might work may be lacking. It may seem impossible just to get out of bed.
It is here where friends and relatives can play an especially vital role. They can provide motivation and cheer the person on.
But be careful not to overdo it. If your encouragement is too intense, it can backfire and be counterproductive. Ask the depressed person what level of encouragement they prefer. Then respect it.
8. Facilitate coping skills
The feeling that you can cope with life (your self-esteem and self-confidence), is often exceptionally low in the depressed person. This is one of the causes of depression, as low self-esteem and self-confidence can feed your depression. And the illness itself leads to low self-confidence. It can be difficult to get or hold a job, or complete a degree, if you lack energy, concentration and if you are depressed. The life of the depressed can sometimes develop into a wreck, and this will intensify depression.
The way to get out of this negative spiral is to build up a sense of coping, step by step, through coping at a low level of ambition or effort. If goals are set low enough that you reach them every time you try, you will gradually build up a sense of mastery and confidence.
9. Make demands, but avoid setting the bar too high
I believe we should treat those who are depressed like ordinary people. Some friends or family members will tiptoe around the depressed, as they are afraid of triggering the depression. I think this can reinforce rather than reduce depression. No one benefits from being treated as a defective human.
At the same time, one must be aware that there are many things that are much more difficult to achieve for the depressed person than for healthy people. Anxiety is often involved, and this can turn social events, which are initially pleasant, into quite ghastly events.
You can make demands on the depressed, but try to keep them at a level the sick person can cope with. Gradually, you can build up the level of demands to the same levels you would a healthy person. As the sick gradually gets better, you can adjust how you relate to him/her.
10. Take care of yourself
You can’t help others if you get exhausted or even fall into depression yourself. I have seen many family members becoming exhausted while trying to pull the sick person out of depression. They can even become depressed themselves, due to grief about the situation, or frustration that nothing they do to help seems to take.
Remember that it is not the responsibility of friends or family to cure depression in others. It is also not possible to pull another person out of depression. You as a friend or family member should not be the therapist. It is the ill who must take the steps, who must perform the exercises that are necessary to get better. Your role is mainly to provide support. And to be successful in a supportive role, you have to take care of yourself first.
I wish you all the best, and may you be of great help to the person you want to help.
Read more about techniques and interventions that helps against depression in 14 Steps to Happiness. It includes, among other things, a complete program that you can follow to get rid of depression or get much better. You can follow the program along with the ill person. I have recently also published a workbook, which makes it easier for those suffering from depression to implement the techniques and interventions in the program.