How to support someone with depression

Wondering how best to support your friend or loved one with depression? You’re not alone. The number of people in the UK who are experiencing mental health difficulties has increased significantly in recent years. It’s now reported that each year, one in four of us will have a mental health problem. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there are currently over 300 million adults and children living with depression, globally.

With this mind, most of us are personally affected by depression – either because we suffer from it ourselves or know someone who does. It can be really difficult to support a friend or family member through a period of depression. You may feel worried, sad, anxious, guilty, angry, frustrated or helpless. That’s totally normal.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that, however much you care, you will not be able to ‘fix’ the problem. Here, Dr Gemima Fitzgerald, a clinical psychologist, shares some tips as a starting point for supporting someone with depression.

How to support someone with depression

Learn about mental health

Depression is a serious condition and people can’t just ‘snap out of it’. There are some great books you can read and information you can find online. The person you care about isn’t lazy or being deliberately negative. Read up on it as there is always something more we can learn.

Make time to listen

Try not talking. The beauty of this is that it takes all the pressure off you to come up with something ‘wise’ to say. Open your heart and really be with the other person as you listen to them.

Don’t be afraid of some silences too. You may be very aware of them but for the person with depression, their mind might be very busy as they try to articulate what they want to say. This can take time so be patient.

What not to say

I’ve spoken to countless men and women over the years who experience depression and they have recounted many unhelpful things that well-meaning people have said to them. It is great to be thoughtful and kind, but please don’t try to ‘jolly them along’. There’s nothing more irritating than someone who tells you to ‘cheer up’ or who tries to make you ‘cheer up’ when you feel like you’re in a black hole of low mood.

Don’t say ‘man up’ or ‘pull yourself together’. Depression is not a sign of weakness. Don’t fire off a list of suggestions of what they could try to do to feel better or point out how much worse off some people are in the world. This can just add to the feelings of guilt and self-loathing that many people with depression already feel.

If it feels like you are in a tug of war contest with someone, and the harder you pull on one end of the rope, the harder the other person pulls on their end, just let go of the rope. That doesn’t mean walking away or abandoning the other person. It means stop trying to come up with ideas and solutions to solve the problem. Just be with them. Listen. Empathise. Be sensitive about how you approach the subject.

Acceptance and self-compassion

Accept that this is how they are experiencing the world right now. It feels awful for them. Help them to take the pressure off themselves to get better quickly. Being kind to themselves is so important. Keep hope alive and remind each other that ‘This too shall pass’ one day. We don’t know exactly when that will be, but one day things will feel better.

One of the best ways to respond is to be with them without judging or criticising them. Ignoring the depression doesn’t make it go away so if your loved one is able to acknowledge they have a problem, that’s a really great first step. Self-compassion is so important. Notice how your friend or family member talks about themselves. It’s likely to be very self-critical so try to be a kinder voice in their lives.

Encourage them to seek a professional opinion

A psychologist or counsellor that is professionally accredited can be really helpful. It is also a good idea to encourage them to visit a GP if you are concerned about them. You could even offer to accompany them to their appointment.

Medication can be helpful, but I would also encourage people to have someone to talk to alongside this to ‘get to the root’ of what is causing the difficulties. We also know that fresh air, some form of regular exercise, a good diet and talking to a friend is really good for our mood so any gentle support around this would be beneficial.

Self-care for you as a friend

Supporting someone with depression can be really difficult and if you’re not careful it can start to negatively impact your own mental health. Don’t forget to look after yourself. If you are on the receiving end of criticism, anger and negativity try not to take it personally. People often lash out at the people they feel closest to.

Notice how you are feeling. It is common to feel exhausted and low in mood when you spend lots of time empathising with someone who is so low themselves. Try not to get sucked in to the black-hole of depression. Remember to protect your boundaries. It’s ok to say ‘no’ at times, and ‘saving’ this person is not your responsibility or even possible.

It’s a good idea to do something completely different and change the atmosphere around you after being with that person. Do something kind for yourself. Take a walk. Put on some uplifting music. Light a candle or do a yoga class. Do things that will re-charge your batteries. Think of the ‘oxygen mask analogy’. When you go on a flight you are told that if the oxygen masks come down it’s important to put your own mask on before you help anyone vulnerable around you. That’s because if you collapse, you won’t be able to help anyone. This applies now. You must take care of yourself. You cannot fix this person; however much you would like to. Trust that your care and love will be a wonderful help but ultimately this is not your battle.

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