Learning how to support someone with depression can help if someone you care about is struggling with their mental health.
Friends and family members can be crucial pillars of support when people are struggling and if your loved one is willing to express their feelings and talk openly with you, then it can make a huge difference to their recovery.
In learning how to support someone with depression, we spoke to a team of mental health experts to find out when to reach out to friends, how to manage anxiety symptoms, and how to care for yourself if you’re struggling while helping your loved ones.
How to support someone with depression
Everyone will experience depression differently as it's a serious condition characterized by feelings of sadness, anger, and loss that interfere with daily activity. Some compare it to feelings of grief but depression also tends to come with a loss of self-esteem, while grief may not.
“Depression literally means to depress, to push down,” says Holly Roberts, a counselor for Relate. “When we become depressed, we have most likely pushed down difficult emotions we’ve not felt able to express or known how to manage.”
When supporting someone with depression, it's vital to be aware that you can't 'cure' them of the condition. Feeling sad or down is a normal part of life but depression is different and without proper invention, it tends to get worse over time.
Discover how you can support your loved one with our expert-backed guide.
1. Stay connected
Messages around mental health, particularly on various awareness weeks and months, tend to focus on urging those struggling to reach out. However, those dealing with depression often isolate themselves from their social circle and they can find it hard to communicate what they need.
Letting them know that they’re not alone and that their presence is valued is important. Continue to invite and involve your friend or family member in social events, so they feel connected to what’s going on. However, it’s important not to put pressure on someone if they’re not feeling up to it. Be accommodating and if your friend doesn’t want to do an activity or meet a group of people, then suggest something more low-key with less expectation placed on it, like a movie night in. This can help them deal with loneliness, which can be a huge contributor to depression.
“If your loved one isn’t up to socializing and is finding it hard, then try to continue to keep in touch regardless,” says Jessica D’Cruz, spokesperson for the mental health charity Mind. “A text message or email to let them know that you're thinking of them can make a big difference.”
2. Don't be critical or downplay their emotions
If you've not experienced depression yourself, it can be hard to understand everything your loved one is feeling, or how the condition manifests itself. Mind describe the key symptoms of a serious depressive disorder as including insomnia or hypersomnia, fatigue, and feelings of worthlessness. This can lead to behavior that some see as unsociable, like canceling plans last minute or not being able to look after basic bodily hygiene.
Playing down the condition or trying to brush over these struggles will only lead to more feelings of isolation for those affected and it will discourage them from opening up in the future.
“Try not to blame your loved ones for feeling the way they do or put too much pressure on them to get better straight away. They're probably being very critical and harsh towards themselves already,” says D’Cruz.
3. Listen—and try not to make assumptions
“Your perspective might be useful to your friend or family member but try to not assume that you know what may have caused how they feel, or what will help,” says D’Cruz. “Giving someone space to talk and share how they’re feeling is useful. If they find it difficult to open up, let them know you’re there whenever they are ready. Everyone will need different support, so chat to your friend or family member about how you can help them the most.”
If you’re struggling to understand what it is that your loved one is feeling, it's natural to try and relate it to your own experiences. However, this may not always be helpful if you haven’t suffered from depression before. Instead, just focus on listening to what they say.
There are also plenty of resources online from charities such as Mind that can help you navigate listening and asking questions. While you don't need to know everything about depression, having some background on the condition will likely be useful too.
4. Do practical tasks
Depression can make you feel despondent and unable to focus on or complete what might seem like simple, everyday chores. Offering practical help, such as cooking meals, filling their car with petrol, or walking the dog can be a good way to support your loved one if you’re struggling to know what to do.
“Everyone will need different support,” says D’Cruz. “So talk to your friend or family member about how you can help them the most.”
5. Be patient
“Your loved one may struggle to articulate what they feel or need, so you will need to show patience, and understand that sometimes just saying ‘I’m here’ is all that is needed,” says psychologist Dr Alison McClymont.
Watching your loved one suffer with depression can feel frustrating at times, but it’s important that you don’t let that cloud your judgment of the situation. Mental health issues like depression and anxiety can affect any of us, so think about how you’d want someone to show up for you.
6. Be prepared to act
If you’re concerned that your loved one might be in danger, then it’s important to stay calm, but seek help. “It can be upsetting to hear that someone you care about is distressed, but try to stay calm as this can help them feel calmer too,” says D’Cruz.
In the US, reach a crisis hotline on 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or you can text HOME to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line. The Samaritans offer a 24-hour helpline (116 123) and SHOUT (85258) provides a texting service from a 24-hour crisis volunteer-run helpline for anyone who is anxious, worried or stressed in the UK.
In an emergency, always dial 911 in the US and 999 in the UK. If you have to go to the hospital, try to wait with the person until they can see a doctor.
How to support a friend who's depressed
“If you notice something might be up, check in with your friend and ask if everything’s OK,” says Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “By its very nature, depression is isolating, so don't take it personally if your friend doesn’t always pick up the phone or reply to your messages."
She adds, "One of the symptoms of depression is that it can lead a person to lose interest in the activities they once enjoyed, but it’s these activities that can often help aid their recovery and help build confidence."
It can be hard if you don't see someone very often so keep an eye out for key signs when you do see them, like social withdrawal, canceling plans they originally seemed excited about, and substance abuse like problematic drinking. These are also symptoms of various kinds of depression, so they may also need help to learn how to combat SAD - otherwise known as the 'winter blues'.
"If you live nearby, see if you can encourage them to go on a gentle walk around the park, or if you live far from each other, watch your favorite TV shows together online or over Zoom," Dr Touroni says.
How to support a partner who's depressed
Depression in relationships is a joint issue that can impact both of you, but it's important to remember that your partner's condition is not your own. Holding yourself responsible for their mental health is a slippery slope that rarely works out.
“Depression may cause a couple to feel disconnected from each other and create a distance between them,” says Roberts. “You might sense a coldness from your partner or you might not feel understood or heard. If your partner is affected by depression, they may not know how to relate to you because they find it very hard to understand themselves.”
Working together to offer care and compassion to the one that is struggling can help you both come through the other side though. First of all, acknowledging that depression is present in your relationship may be a huge weight off both of your shoulders, and it can help your partner feel more secure in seeking support.
“There can be a stigma around having depression, and feelings of shame may stop someone from being able to ask for help,” says Roberts. “This may come across as your partner being passive-aggressive or having unexplainable emotional outbursts. If you can reframe these responses as a cry for help, then it may make it easier to know that support is needed.”
The NHS also recommends staying calm and being patient where possible if you're in a relationship with someone who has depression. "Your partner may not always be able to accept your support and may need to work through some things alone," their advice suggests. "Don’t take this personally. It may just be your partner’s way of coping."
Look for the positives. "If your partner makes progress in one area but neglects another, do your best to focus on the positives and let the rest go. Even getting out of bed can be hard when someone is depressed, so don’t expect too much too soon."
Services like Relate offer individual counseling, couples counseling as well as couple therapy for depression.
Finally, remember to look after yourself
It can be hard watching your loved one struggle with depression and you can offer support, but don’t put pressure on yourself to ‘fix’ their issues. You might want to encourage them to get help immediately, but it’s important to let them decide their own pace for seeking support.
“While supporting a loved one, try to take care of yourself as well,” says D’Cruz. “Your mental health is equally important, and supporting someone with depression could put a strain on your wellbeing."
Find ways to relax and learn how to reduce stress if it's been a particularly difficult time, making sure to allow time for yourself to do what you love and enjoy. As much as someone with depression may benefit from exercise, fresh air and learning how to sleep better, these are factors that will also help you handle stressors in your own life.
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With five years of experience working across print and digital publications, Stacey is a journalist who specializes in writing about the latest developments in health and wellbeing. She has also previously written for Women’s Health, Get The Gloss, Fit & Well, Stylist, and Natural Health magazine, covering current health trends and interviewing leading figures in the wellness space.
When she’s not talking to health experts, you can probably find her hiking somewhere in the Welsh countryside or near the coast. Her favorite two ways to switch off are a Pilates class and a glass of wine with a home-cooked meal.
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