Julie Barton

Good Medicine

Be There, Relentlessly

How to help when someone you love is depressed

Posted Sep 02, 2015

When I’ve been at my deepest depths of depression, I have said that I just want to die. I don’t truly mean it. But I do truly feel it. For me, when I’m really down, suicidal thoughts come out of nowhere, like a sharp cold breeze chilling me to the bone: Jump. Stop eating. Swallow them all. Eventually I will get scared enough and turn to my family, my husband, my therapist, and my friends. And thankfully, they step in and try to help me.

I know that some of you reading this may have tried to help your loved one, but they took their life anyway. It is not your fault. Sometimes mental illness is simply too devastating. After I hear about a suicide, I feel a lot like I feel when I hear that someone has died of cancer. I think that they died of a terrible, unfair disease from which they could not recover. 

When someone you love is depressed, it’s hard to know what to do or say. It’s taken many years for me curate my own little group of saviors, and they haven’t always gotten it right. We’ve learned that saying any of the following things doesn’t help:

  • Just get some sleep. It will all feel better in the morning.
  • These are hard times, but they will pass.
  • I’ll leave you alone. I can tell you just need some time by yourself.
  • Just buck up.
  • So many people have it so much worse than you do!
  • How was your day? Hungry? (Acting like everything’s fine.)

Everyone is different, but what I want when I’m depressed is someone very close to me, a partner or best friend or parent, to say, simply, “I’m here.”

I want them to ask me, “On a scale of 1-10, where are you? 1= suicidal 10=fantastic?” If I say I’m a 1 or worse, they sit down near me (not right next to me, no touching) and they don’t ask anything of me. They say, “Okay, I’m here. If you want to talk, great. If not, I’m still going to be here.” I may feel like talking for hours, I may not. Tears may run down my face, and they may not.

These are the words that help:

  • I’m here.
  • I care.
  • I recognize that you are not okay right now.
  • Are you really suicidal? (It’s important to ask.)
  • I will help you connect with the doctors, therapists and healers that you need.
  • I know you’ll be okay.
  • I am not leaving.

Together through the years, my loved ones and I have learned how to navigate this illness. Knowing that my husband, my parents, and my friends are really, truly there helps me begin to relax and recover. And honestly, sometimes just saying the words, “I think I’m really depressed again,” takes some of the sorrow away. Once I turn toward the darkness, it loses some of its power.

Sometimes I think of depression as a big black rock. When I say that I’m feeling really, really bad and family and friends step in, it’s as if they help hold a corner of the boulder of sadness for me while I try to rest, reorient my attention toward what sustains me, and slowly get back up. While we’re holding the black rock together, it somehow begins to turn to sand and eventually falls through all of our fingers.

If your partner, best friend, parent or child is suffering, just remember, start with this: Be there, relentlessly.