It’s no secret that when depression visits, it’s devastating for the person experiencing it, as well as those who love and rely on them. “When it comes,” writes Andrew Solomon in The Noonday Demon, “it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection…[It] destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.”
If your person is experiencing depression, you may feel stuck on what to do. You desperately want to help, but your person doesn’t seem to want you around. You may want to “fix” the problem, but when you try it only makes things worse for both of you. And "fixing" is neither in your power nor your role.
So what is your role? What can you do? “Love, though it is no prophylactic against depression, is what cushions the mind and protects it from itself,” says Solomon. You can’t “fix” someone’s depression, but you also needn’t underestimate your potential positive impact through providing soft love and sturdy support on their journey.
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing it’s not the first resource you’ve come upon. I’m guessing you’ve Googled madly, and scoured some of the great guidance out there like these resources.
Between reading an initial “guide” and perhaps getting support from a specialist yourself, there’s often a desire to consume multiple resources with slightly different perspectives, as you seek the wisdom that “clicks.” I want to commend you for your desire to show up for your “person.” This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a compliment to all the great material out there – because, for a topic so vast, you deserve multiple perspectives.
I hope in some small way this helps both you and your loved one. The tunnel feels long, but I promise, there’s a light at the end.
Here are 11 ways you can help a loved one who is suffering from depression. This list is ordered with the acronym “HOW TO HELP ME” because it’s informed by things past clients with depression have told me they wish their significant other knew (in addition to broader research).
1. Hold the hope. One symptom of depression is “hopelessness.” Not only do you feel awful, you feel like this is how it will always be. But hope is vital to recovery. If your partner is feeling hopeless, you can still choose hope. You might even say something like, “I know it feels like it will always be this way. And I’ve seen you get through hard things before. I have so much hope you will get through this challenge. We will do it together.”
2. Offer compassion. Compassion = Empathy + Action. Empathy doesn’t mean feeling sorry for someone. It means “being with,” and actively viewing the situation through your loved one’s perspective. This video narrated by Brene Brown gives one of the best overviews of empathy that I’ve seen. Empathy becomes compassion when we also have a willingness to act on behalf of the person we love.
3. Watch out for signs of suicidality. Reducing stigma includes normalizing mental illness, but not neutralizing it. Mental health conditions need to be taken seriously, like any other condition. The vast majority of individuals with depression will not die by suicide, but because mental illness, especially mood disorders elevate the risk, it’s a good practice for loved ones (and everyone, really), to be aware of the signs, and get some basic training and support for how to help. Potential resources include reaching out to suicide prevention lifeline, or taking a training such as Question, Persuade, Refer (1hour, online option), safeTALK (4 hours), or ASIST (2-Days, digital option available).
4. Talk about treatment options. Depression is a treatable illness. Talk about recognized treatment options such as medication, talk therapy, or group therapy, as well as lifestyle supports such as exercise and healthy sleep. As a partner, your job isn’t to make a diagnosis or treatment plan, but you can share that help is out there. Often the best, most simple place to start is a phone or in-person appointment with a primary care doctor.
5. Offer concrete support. In a depressive episode, even the most capable person can struggle with what could otherwise seem a simple task (like calling a doctor, booking an appointment, and getting to that appointment on time). Someone struggling with depression may not know to answer a broad question like, “How can I help?” Instead, offer specific concrete support such as: Can I just sit here with you quietly? Can I drive you to your doctor’s appointment and wait outside? Would you like to go for a walk?
6. Honor small wins. Someone might be a marathon runner, but in the throes of depression, just getting out the door to work is a worthy achievement. For someone without depression, it can be hard to remember that these mundane, simple tasks may feel like a herculean effort. But small wins add up to big change. Saying something like, “I’m proud of you, I know that took strength” can go a long way.
7. Express care AND concern. People with depression feel pretty badly about themselves. It is helpful to remind them that you love and respect them. Also, it’s ok to share your concerns. Often, what encourages people to therapy for the first time isn’t their own intrinsic desire, but the concern of loved ones. It’s okay to say something like, “I love you, and understand that you can’t get out of bed. I am also concerned that if you don’t get help now, you will lose your job, which is going to make things much worse. Our family needs you. We want you to get help.”
8. Listen non-judgmentally. People with depression tend to feel isolated. The darkness within them can feel all-consuming, and frightening. Someone with depression may push others away, but don’t assume that isolation is really what they need to heal. The ability to share their experience can be a source of light, and connection. When your partner says something about their experience (such as “my body feels so heavy”), gently encourage them to share more (such as “that sounds hard, tell me more,” as you listen without judgment.
9. Practice self-care. Someone with depression isn’t a bad person but they may have challenging symptoms that are hurtful to you and others you love. As you support your partner, it’s vital to care for yourself as well. Do what you need to do feel ok, to be safe, and to stay healthy. Professional support can help you navigate this balance, identify compassionate boundaries, and not lose yourself in the process.
10. Myth-bust. Myths about mental illness can impact your capacity for compassion, and your partner’s capacity for self-compassion. Here is one to watch out for:
- The myth of controllability. You may find yourself wondering, “What is wrong with my partner? They refuse to do even the most basic of tasks.” It’s likely that your partner is being even harder on themselves wondering, “What is wrong with me? I am seriously flawed.” The thing is, they can’t will away their depression, just as one can’t will away diabetes or cancer. Like any illness, depression isn’t a character flaw. It’s a health issue that requires treatment.
11. Educate yourself. Because you can’t control your partner’s depression, the situation can easily feel exasperating and out of control. One way to gain a sense of control in your own life is through education. By educating yourself about the signs and symptoms of depression, you’ll be less likely to blame yourself or blame your partner for its occurrence. You’ll be more likely to understand what to expect, and to know where to get support.
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