When a Loved One has Depression: Tips for Helping
From someone who knows
I don't remember when it first really occurred to me that my boyfriend of a year and a half has clinical depression. Somehow I just knew, without having a special moment of realization or revelation.
I remember when he first came out and said it, though. He told me that he had been having anxiety attacks since he was 8, and had been depressed since pretty much the same time. He remembers being 10 years old and wishing, praying even, that he could just die.
10 years old. Still a child.
I was angry - not at him, but at the world, the circumstances, myself even. I was so angry and heartbroken that I didn't know him back then, and that I couldn't have been there for him. I eventually came to the realization that no, I wasn't in his life back then ... but I am now, and I need to make it count.
These are just a few of the things I have come up with to help, and help deal with, a loved one with depression. Some are things you can do, and some are things you just need to realize. Whatever your situation is, I hope that it helps.
1. Don't commit yourself if you aren't going to commit yourself fully.
I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you - it's going to be hard. Supporting someone with depression takes a lot out of you, and I mean a lot. You are going to get weary. You are going to be impatient or even angry at times, and you may want to give up the whole thing. You need to decide for yourself if this is worth it, for you, before you commit yourself. (This is especially true in love relationships, but equally as true in friendships or family relationships as well.) Personally, my boyfriend is a wonderful man to me and I love him dearly. Being in a relationship with him isn't easy, but it is well worth it. You need to make that decision for yourself.
2. Be there for them.
There is a general rule that I have come up with - say it and show it. Tell them that you are always there for them, and follow through on that. This can mean sacrifices, whether it's being woken up at 2AM to talk on the phone or canceling plans with a friend because your depressed loved one needs you. Tell them that you love them (if you mean it- don't lie) and that you care about them, and show it, which brings us to the next one ...
3. Do special things for them.
Make dinner, clean their house, send them an encouraging letter, wash the dishes, etc. It doesn't have to be big, just show them that you care. To go along with the "say it and show it," tell them that you wanted to do this because you care and because they are special. **Keep in mind, though, that what you might think is helpful or fun may not make the other person comfortable. They might not want to go out and see a movie and they may not even like for you to take out their trash.
4. Give compliments.
Tell them how much they mean to you, and why. Are they kind and considerate? Tell them. Are they intelligent? Tell them. People who are depressed need to hear compliments, because they typically don't like themselves very much. They need to know that other people do. Also, tell them that you are proud of them. They need to know that the things they do, no matter how big or how small, have meaning and affect others.
5. Stay calm and stay strong.
As I mentioned before, there are going to be times when you are going to get weary and frustrated. It is very important that you stay in control of your own emotions, though. This doesn't mean that you have to fake being happy all the time or pretend like nothing is wrong. I simply mean that when your loved one is having a breakdown and is in a moment of dire need, you must be calm and strong for them. Be reassuring. Tell them that everything is going to be ok - and listen to your own words. Don't get too worked up.
6. Don't take everything too personally.
In the midst of a meltdown, your loved one may say something offensive or hurtful. Please realize that they probably don't mean it - in a "meltdown" state, emotions are raging and thoughts aren't too clear. It is easy to point fingers or act out in anger. I know that it is easier said than done, but don't take it too personally. Forgive, forget, and let it go.
7. Don't assume that they're suicidal but don't rule it out as a possibility.
Don't assume that just because your loved one suffers from depression that they are going to attempt suicide. This can be insulting and make it seem like you think that they are weak or that you don't trust them. At the same time, realize that suicidal thoughts could be a possibility. Don't take anything too lightly. If your loved one says things like how they would rather be dead or they don't want to live anymore, don't act like it's a joke, even if it is said in a joking manner. Take what they say seriously, because depression and suicide are serious matters.
8. Realize that it's not your job to "fix" them.
You probably aren't a licensed psychologist (and even if you are, your loved one isn't your client). It is not your job to fix them or make them all better. It is your job to support them and do what you can to let them know that you care. This means that you cannot blame yourself for anything that happens. I have a hard time with this. I often feel like, as the girlfriend, it is my job to make my boyfriend happy and make him okay. And when he's not, I often blame myself. You can't do this. Depression is a disease and you cannot place the full weight of it on yourself. Furthermore, you need to realize that there is no easy fix or cure for depression. It can be treated, but it's not going to magically disappear overnight. You need to come to terms with the fact that this may be a long journey.
9. Realize when to press them to seek professional help.
If the depression has been going on for a long time, seriously interferes with their daily lives or debilitates them, or includes thoughts of suicide ... you should try to get your loved one to seek professional help. Don't press too hard and don't get angry or frustrated at them. Most people suffering from depression don't want to seek professional help because they think it will make them seem weak, crazy, or defective. Let your loved one know that you just want them to be able to enjoy life the way they used to before, that you're doing this because you care, etc. Also, keep in mind that there are several things included in what I am considering "professional help." Encourage them to see a doctor, because there are other conditions (thyroid defects, vitamin deficiencies, etc) that can cause depression symptoms other than actual depression. Encourage them to see a therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist, because it really does help. If their depression is severe enough, they may need to take prescription anti-depressant medications. If they don't want to take that route, there are also several natural supplements that may help, such as 5-HTP (which my boyfriend used to take), St. John's wort, saffron, SAMe, etc.
10. Educate yourself.
Learn all that you can about depression, including different types of depression, signs and symptoms, treatments, and signs of suicidal tendencies. The more you know, the better equipped you are to understand and help your loved one. Also, learn all that you can about your loved one with regard to their depression. Everyone is different. Learn what works for them and what doesn't, what seems to help and what makes them feel worse. A lot of this is going to be trial and error, and you are going to make mistakes. Don't fret, but rather learn from every moment you experience with your loved one. Don't be afraid to ask them what helps or what they need from you, either.
Encouraging Things to Say
- I'm here for you
- I love you
- I care about you very much
- Whatever you need, I will do it for you
- I'm not going to leave you
- You're not alone
- Everything is going to be okay
- I know things are bad right now, but they will get better, and I will be with you through it
- I'm proud of you for doing ___ / Thank you for doing ___
- I would not be the same person I am today without you in my life
- You mean so much to me
- You are going to get through this, and you don't have to do it alone
- You are going to be okay
- It won't feel like this forever
- There are so many people who love and care about you (give examples of people)
ABSOLUTELY DO NOT ...
- ... get angry at them for being depressed. It's not their fault - depression is a disease, and trust me, they don't want to have it.
- ... tell them to "snap out of it." They can't. If they could, they would have a long time ago.
- ... tell them that a lot of people have it worse than them, like those starving kids in Africa. Maybe it's true, but it isn't relevant. To them, what's going on in their lives is serious and terrible. They don't share your perspective that there are "worse things" happening, so don't try to force them to see it. This won't make them feel better, but will only make it seem like you are not taking them or their situation seriously.
- ... make jokes about depression or suicide. Seriously. It's not funny. Be mindful of what you say. It makes me very angry when I hear people in my classes saying, "Ugh, I'm gonna kill myself" when it is announced that we have a big test. This goes for every situation, actually, not just in the presence of your loved one. You never know who around you may be suffering from depression or who lost someone to suicide.