How to Help a Depressed Person
I have several friends who suffer from chronic depression. Reaching out to people who are depressed can be challenging and exhausting. They won’t respond to our phone calls, clam up when we ask them what is wrong, and refuse to attend social events. They seem to be surrounded by clouds of sadness no matter how much sunshine we try to bring into their lives.
People who are depressed may not recognize their state of despair, and think that their feelings are normal. Others may be in denial about their condition. Feelings of shame and guilt because of their depression could also keep them from admitting their problems and seeking help.
Depressed people may mistakenly feel that they can overcome their feelings by sheer willpower alone. In actuality, people rarely get better without receiving treatment, and their depression may become worse.
Depressed people tend to feel that they are the only ones in the world who are suffering but this condition is more common than we may think. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 9 percent of American adults experience the emotions that lead to depression, and about 3 percent experience major depression.
Recognizing the signs
Depression affects each individual differently, The Mayo Clinic recommends that we look for some common signs such as:
- Seeming sad and down
- Expressing feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, helplessness or hopelessness
- Are restless or easily irritated
- Are sleeping too much or too little, feel tired and lacks energy
- Have changes in appetite and dramatic weight fluctuations
- Are struggling to concentrate or make decisions
- Are plagued with guilt and shame
- Thinking and talking about suicide
- Are abusing drugs or alcohol
Realize our limitations
When we see a loved one or friend down in the depths of depression, we long to rescue them. We want to find the right words or shake them until we think they have come to their senses. The truth is that there are no magic words that make their cloud of smoke poof and will zap them out of it. No amount of scolding, manipulating or shock tactics will change them.
Instead, we need to approach them gently and tell them what we have observed. What we say should express our love and concern for their welfare in a non-judgmental way. The person may express thoughts that seem strange or nonsensical to us, but are real for them.
We can assure them that depression is a treatable medical condition and not a flaw in their characters.
The best case scenario is that they accept that they are depressed and seek help from a medical professional such as a doctor or psychiatrist. Some people, though, will be reluctant to admit that they have a problem and go into denial. Sometimes, we need to gently persist in expressing our concerns when we can.
People who are depressed don’t want to stay in that negative frame of mind. Human beings naturally want to feel happy and content with life. Before they can come out of a state of despair, they need to decide for themselves that they want to do it. There is no point in us losing patience and become frustrated with them. We should encourage and support them. People with depression must decide to take the steps to healing themselves.
Signs of suicide risk
In cases of severe depression, we should ask the person if they have been thinking about or planning to commit suicide. If the answer is yes, we should encourage them to seek professional help immediately. Here are some signs to watch for:
- Expressing feelings of worthlessness and saying that they are going to kill themselves
- Obsessing about death or violence
- Collecting pills, buying a gun or other means to kill themselves
- Isolating themselves
- Having extreme high to low mood swings
- Risky self-destructive behavior such as substance abuse
- Feeling there is no hope of change for their lives and that they are trapped
- Disrupted eating and sleeping routines
- Dramatic personality changes
There are some things that we can do to help, but we must approach a person as a unique individual with specific needs. When they tell us we need to back off, we need to respect that until they show signs that their door is open again to discuss the topic.
Keep the lines of communication open
It is tough to keep reaching out to someone who does not respond, especially friends who won’t open their doors or answer their phones. All we can do is to assure them that we are there for them when they need physical help or feel ready to talk about of their depression. We can keep in touch with friends via email, text, leaving a phone message, or passing on a message through a family member.
Encourage them to seek treatment
People who are depressed are overwhelmed by their negative feelings. They can create a state of inertia and isolation. They long to pull themselves out of their despair but may not know how. Before they can seek help, however, they must be able to face and acknowledge their condition. Sometimes, a friend or loved one is the first to raise the alarm about their depression. Other times, they may come to the realization themselves.
Once a person is willing to seek treatment, they need to know that we are willing to support them. We can ask them to talk about their treatment. There are practical ways to help like setting up appointments and accompanying them to the doctor’s office. The depressed person will need encouragement and a listening ear at this time.
They also need more practical assistance, such as being driven to a doctor’s appointment or having someone pick up their prescription. If a depressed person lives with us, we may be able to monitor his care and make sure that hey are talking his medication. Depressed people can also benefit from psychiatric help, or support groups serving people with depression.
Provide positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement such as reminding them that they are loved and have positive characteristics will also help them stick to their treatment plan. Depressed people are often hard on themselves and find fault with the things they do.
Offer help where needed
Depressed people will be consumed by their feelings of depression and let go of housekeeping and eating. We can help by cooking or bringing over meals, or offering to clean. We can also invite them out for coffee or an activity that they will enjoy. They may not say yes at first, but will come around with time. If the person is a family member, we can help by providing routines such as specific mealtimes and bedtimes to ensure restful sleep.
There is a 50 percent chance that a person who is in remission from depression will experience a relapse, and the risk increases with each relapse. There are a number of possible triggers that can be managed with help from a medical or psychological professional and our support.
Not following a treatment plan: sometimes depressed people stop taking their medication or are not taking it correctly. Some may be discouraged by side effects and need to talk to their doctor about changing their medication.
Taking care of ourselves
Supporting someone who is depressed is upsetting and emotionally draining.
There are some steps that we can take to care for ourselves during this journey:
- learn everything you can about depression to prepare yourself for whatever comes
- Be patient with the person, change takes time
- Try not to be upset with the person and avoid giving in to extreme frustration or anger
- Take care of your physical and emotional needs to avoid the possibility of burnout
- Ask friends or family members to help.
Negative and obsessive thinking: Some depressed people focus on their weaknesses and failures and see the world through a negative filter. Experts recommend that these people develop strategies to deal with their destructive thinking. Mindfulness-based interventions and cognitive therapies are also helpful.
Vulnerable areas: there are events or circumstances in each person’s life such as the anniversary of the death of a loved one which may trigger depression.
Depressed people will react to the relapse with self-blame, guilt, shame, and a sense of failure. Our support and professional helps is critical to their recovery.
© Carola Finch 2015