Many of us who try to educate ourselves in mental health/psychology have experienced that feeling of helplessness when someone we love is suffering with clinical levels of a disorder. When we see someone in pain, often times, our first instincts are to try to “fix the problem,” do something to make it better, or say the perfect thing to help. A lot of times, these efforts don’t have their intended impact. This post is dedicated to those of us who want to help our loved ones with depression, but aren’t sure where to start.
First Things First: Understanding Depression
While we all experience sadness, hard days, and times when we feel down, depression is something over and above just ‘having a hard time.’ This is an essential thing to understand about depression: if you don’t have it, you probably don’t understand.
I am sure you’ve all seen the check list of possible symptoms of depression, so I won’t bother by listing what a quick google search can tell you. What the DSM-V doesn’t explicitly say is that depression really, really sucks. It is a blanket-fog that seeps over a person’s inner world, turning everything it touches into a reminder of one’s pain. For some people, it may manifest as numbness; for others, it might be an acute sadness or irritability. Depression can feel like swimming with an anchor tied to your ankle. It can feel like you’re gasping for air, barely keeping your head above water. And what’s worse, this disorder can make it seem like everyone else has a lifejacket and is floating along with ease. What results is an incredible sense of shame, isolation, and plain exhaustion.
Tip # 1: Realize that What Works for you Might not Work for Them
In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes people make when trying to comfort a depressed loved one is assuming that what you find to be inspiring, motivating, and comforting will have the same effect on someone with depression. In my experience, this is not the case. I love finding positive quotes that help me feel less stressed or overwhelmed (ones that have a glass-half-full, positive thinking type of message). There is nothing wrong with me feeling comforted by these quotes; however, these same words can sound silly and invalidating to someone with clinical levels of depression.
Tip #2: Stay Away from Problem Solving/Advice Giving
This one is also really common. When we hear someone say how sad and hopeless they feel, something in us feels compelled to say, “Have you tried ______?” or, “What if you just _____?”
I know it’s hard and counter-intuitive, but to help your loved one with depression, you first have to realize that you cannot cure your loved one’s depression.
You just can’t. The good news is, the pressure is off to try to brainstorm yourself into a solution, or to say the perfect thing to make it all better.
Tip #3: Listen and Engage
At this point, you might be asking, “So if you shouldn’t give advice or offer solutions, what are you even supposed to do? Just… stare at them??” Please don’t silently stare at them.
Once you realize you don’t have to solve everything, you are free to use all of your cognitive energy to be fully present with your loved one as they talk about their depression. Really listen to what they’re saying, with the goal of understanding.
Here are some ideas of how to engage in the conversation without giving advice:
Ask open-ended questions to help you understand what they’re going through:
- “How are you really feeling today?”
- “What’s it been like trying to manage all of this?”
Reflect back what you hear them saying using your own compassionate words:
- “It sounds like you’re feeling really overwhelmed right now. I’m sure it so difficult to try to go to work with all of this.”
- “I hear you saying how exhausted you feel. It sounds so tiring to deal with this day in and day out.”
- “I know I can’t fix it, but I’m so sorry to hear that this is how you’ve been feeling. Please know you’re not alone with this.”
- “I can’t imagine what you’re going through and I wish I could take it away. I know that I can’t fix it, but I want to support you through it.”
Thank them for their vulnerability:
- “I can’t imagine how hard this is to talk about. I really appreciate you trusting me enough to open up about it.”
- “Thanks for sharing your feelings with me. Please know that I am always here for you; you are never a burden.”
Tip #4: Realize Depression Makes it Hard to Do That Which May Help
Family members and friends of people with depression can become frustrated with this fact: there are many things which studies suggest help depressive symptoms, such as therapy, eating healthy foods, exercise, social connections, etc. However, these same exact things can be really difficult to do when you’re depressed.
Think of it this way: if you were fatigued, extremely sad, and feeling hopeless about your future, which of the following would you be more likely to do: Go to the gym, buy groceries, cook a healthy meal, and invite friends over? Or, Lay in bed and eat frozen pizza? Likely the latter.
This isn’t their fault, and it’s probably not an attempt to sabotage their own recovery. It’s most likely that they are feeling overwhelmed and exhausted. And who’s to blame them? Depression is overwhelming and exhausting!!
Tip #5: Expect Steps in All Directions
Recovery isn’t linear. This means there will be good days, followed by bad ones, followed by great ones, followed by really bad ones. Because we so desperately want those we love to be okay, it’s all too easy to cling to signs of improvement as ‘turning a corner.’ But what unrealistic optimism can do is make our loved ones feel like they are letting us down the next time one of their bad days comes around. Instead, be okay with meeting them where they are at, even if it means today is worse than yesterday.
Have hope that many people who suffer from depression do, indeed, recover. Be patient for whatever that recovery looks like.