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How To Help Someone Who Is Depressed

Learn how conversations can make someone feel connected and understood.

Key points

  • Depression is usually fueled by feeling misunderstood and disconnected.
  • Learn more about the context that is driving the depression to deepen your understanding of the problem.
  • Ask questions and then follow up to make sure you really understand what a person with depression is going through.
Source: Alex Andrews/Pexels
Source: Alex Andrews/Pexels

It’s always hard to see someone you care about struggling. It’s even harder when you feel like there’s nothing you can do to help.

I’m guessing that’s how you feel about your depressed friends, family members, and partners. You may feel like you can’t change their situation, so your hands are tied, but that’s not necessarily true. Talking to people in a particular kind of way can help alleviate depression. Because when you can’t change a situation, the least you can do is talk about it.

People with depression often feel like the way they are suffering is unexplainable or incomprehensible. You have to show them that you can see the problem the same way they do, and you can share the same perspective they have about it. You’re trying to give them that feeling you get when someone likes the same band, movie, or restaurant as you. Not only do you know what they’re talking about, but you feel the same way about it. In order to do that, you need to take a step deeper into that person’s mind.

I’m going to show you three types of questions that I use as a therapist to connect with people who are depressed.

Ask about their past.

Depression is typically triggered by negative life events, especially if those events make someone feel trapped, isolated, or humiliated. But sometimes, the weight of those events isn’t clear when you don’t know what led up to that moment.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say someone interviews for a job but they don’t get an offer. Even if they still have a job, that could spark a depressive episode. In order to understand why, you may need to ask about their past.

Expand the timeline of events to put the problem in context. This will give you clues as to why this event was so damaging. Maybe it was the tenth job they interviewed for that they didn’t get. Or maybe they’ve had a string of meaningless jobs, and that was the first interview they’ve ever cared about. Or perhaps they’ve been living paycheck to paycheck, and that job would’ve finally given them financial room to breathe.

Ask about their culture.

Problems are only problems in context. Not having pants that fit is a problem when you’re getting dressed for work; it’s not a problem before you’re about to have sex. Culture is an ever-present context that follows people wherever they go.

If someone is describing a problem, and it doesn’t make sense to you, then you may need to ask about their cultural background to understand the root of it. Arguing with a parent is harder if you come from a submissive culture. Speaking your mind feels intimidating if you were born in a hyper-polite Midwestern neighborhood. And being vulnerable can feel scarier if you were raised in a world of machismo.

Ask about their family.

Any problem can be a major issue if it involves family because there is so much history packed into any interaction. Remember how it felt when your father gave you a look of disappointment, your sibling teased you, or your mother told you no. All of these seemingly small moments can carry pain from the past that makes them hurt more than if a stranger did the exact same thing. Ask a person with depression about their family, and you’ll understand why they care about the things they care about.

Use this template to have more meaningful and deeper conversations with the people you care about. But remember that people with depression vary just like any other group, and this conversation will be different for different people. Your friend could have a deeper conversation, but your husband might need time to talk this intimately. Your mom might have no problem talking about herself, but your dad might need reminders that you truly want him to open up to you. You’ll also have to practice keeping the conversation about them and minimize how much you talk about yourself unless they ask you a question.

Most importantly, you’ll have to be careful how often you disagree. If a person with depression says, “I’m not good at anything,” it’s easy to disagree, tell them how much you love them, and start listing everything they’re good at. That can be helpful. But it’s also helpful to figure out the meaning behind their statement. Compliments and reassurances are nice, but they ring hollow if the person doesn’t feel like you actually understand their current situation. They could also be keeping a secret from you that complicates any compliment you might give them.

Instead of offering reassurances, ask them, “What do you mean?” Because that opens the door for you both to better understand what they’re thinking. They could mean they’re not good at anything they’ve tried to improve in the last year. Or they could mean they’re not good at anything that their boss cares about. Or they could mean they’re not above average in any one skill, so they see themselves as boring. The devil is in the details when it comes to conversations about depression.

Your role is to help your friend or family member feel more comfortable talking to you about their problems. That’s it. You don’t need to fix anything. You don’t need to research anything. You are letting them know that the door is open to discuss the unchangeable. The more you help someone feel understood, the less depressed they will feel.

Practice asking these kinds of questions, and you’ll feel closer to the people you care about, and they’ll feel closer to you.

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