Depression does not discriminate. It affects a wide variety of people in a wide variety of ways. The roots can be social, emotional, mental, physiological, or some combination. They often grow deep through trauma, grief, loss, genetics, anxiety, or common life stressors.
Sometimes depression is simply a normal response to an abnormal circumstance. It may be episodic or chronic. It can be mild enough to escape outside detection, or severe enough to warrant hospitalization or life-long treatment.
Bad news? Depression is a common condition, but a very personal struggle nonetheless. You cannot rescue someone from its grip or take it away for them.
Good news? You are not powerless. You may not be able to make it all better, but you can offer support.
The following insights are collected from both my personal and my clinical experiences with depression. These suggestions are not exhaustive and may not apply to every person or relationship. But my hope is they’ll give you a framework to lean on in moments when supporting your loved one feels foreign or overwhelming.
FIVE THINGS YOU MAY WANT TO AVOID:
1. Asking why
“Why” questions can pour gasoline on a guilt fire. They often imply someone should feel differently than they do because of A, B, or C. Here’s a quick example.
When I was 17 years old, one of my coaches pulled me aside for a talk and asked me why I had been acting so sad lately. I appreciated her noticing me, and confided in her that I was really depressed.
She then listed everything for which I should be grateful. “So what’s the problem?” she asked. “WHY are you depressed?”
My coach meant well, but her response grew my already present belief that I had to act well even when I was not well. There seemed to be no time or place for my heart to appropriately respond to all of the life stressors and traumas about which she was unaware.
We don’t get to decide if a person has the “right” to be depressed. If you are tempted to force gratitude upon someone based on how you think they should be feeling, hold off. Listen instead.
2. Trying to fix it
It’s good to keep in mind that depressed people are not hung pictures you have to move a little to the left, not broken objects that just need a replacement part, and not puzzles or problems to be solved.
You may notice yourself thinking up theories about the depressed person, or beginning your sentences with, “Maybe you just need to...”
Some advice is probably fine (especially advice around methods proven to help depression, such as talk therapy or exercise). But if you have an idea about what’s wrong and how to fix it, they've probably had it too.
Ponder this mantra: “I cannot fix a person, but I can love one.”
3. Making it about you
It’s natural to want to figure out why your loved one is depressed, and then to come up with solutions you can control. For this reason, blaming yourself and attempting to quiet your own shame or sadness is understandable. You may say things like, “If I had only given you more attention when you were a child...” or, “If I had just been a better husband...”
There may be some truth there, but when a depressed person is lending you trust by disclosing their depression, or when you come upon it by necessity, it is not helpful to directly or indirectly ask them to comfort the pain you feel for having hurt them.
There may be a time for you to share your failings with them, but they should not be required to soothe them for you. Consider finding your own support to work through such feelings. The reparative conversations may need to happen at a later time.
4. Hyper-spiritualizing it
Telling a depressed person they just need to pray more, trust God more, or have more faith is like telling a grieving mother not to be sad because her dead child is in a better place now. Both sentiments miss the boat, and they also miss the beautiful, excruciating humanness of the person traveling in it.
The path to wellness is not quick, clean, simple, or linear. It’s usually as complex as the depression itself – a bumpy, winding road on which learning, pain, hope, and growth occur.
Case in point? If you’re a spiritual person, it is completely legitimate to believe your loved one could be healed of depression, or that spiritual disciplines could help them. But who says the right medication cannot be one answer to prayer?
5. Comparing pain
If your loved one begins to tell you details about their depression, let them speak. Don’t stifle their words immediately with, “I know exactly what you mean because...”
You may relate, but when someone opens up about their pain and your first response is to talk about your own, it doesn’t bring solidarity as much as it smothers his or her unique experience.
You may be able to share your story at some point, but sometimes it is best to wait until it’s asked of you. Your loved one will feel your understanding best through your compassion, your empathy, and your ability to listen well and make space for their words.
AND NOW, FIVE THINGS YOU MAY WANT TO DO:
1. Believe them and learn
Bottom line? You cannot offer support for something you will not acknowledge. When someone tells you they are feeling depressed, “I believe you” is sometimes all it takes to help them feel seen, heard, and human again.
Also, try doing your own research. Less-than-helpful responses to depression are usually not rooted in cruelty or malice, but in a simple lack of awareness and education. Learning about your loved one’s condition will help you to better support (and believe) them.
Side note: Perhaps your loved one talks about their depression a lot and you’re feeling weary (that’s normal). It helps to be equipped with several consistent responses (keep reading for those). Once you have solid words and actions to offer, you may begin to feel a little less powerless, a little less burned out, and a little more supportive.
2. Ask how you can help I was talking with a friend once about my on-going battle with depression, and she made her way to a simple question: “How can I hold you close right now?”
She lives hundreds of miles from me, but I knew what she meant.
You may ask in a different way, but the point is you’re asking, not telling. You are trusting the other knows themselves better than you do, so you’re following their lead rather than asserting your own idea of what needs to happen.
Their answer may be something simple:
Will you go for a walk with me? Can we watch a movie? Will you pray with me? Will you call me again tomorrow?
Maybe you’re noticing your loved one hasn’t helped you with anything in a while – you might try posing the above questions to them. It can give them a chance to step outside of their own internal world, a chance to remember they have something good to offer.
3. Ask what it feels like
Most people who are depressed are searching for ways to describe how they feel. I have compared my own depression to a dark, heavy fog that pushes down on me and makes me feel like I’m trapped and spinning. I’ve heard others say their depression is like seeing only in black and white while everyone around them lives in full color.
Whatever the description, naming it is empowering for the depressed person. It means they are beginning to externalize it, to recognize that although it may be attached to them, it is not who they are.
4. Reassure and Encourage
Depression can chip away at a person’s sense of value, belonging, and identity. It can bring feelings of guilt, shame, unworthiness, and hopelessness. Sometimes the best thing you can do is speak words of affirmation.
I love you. I’m glad you’re here. You belong. I’m glad we’re friends. I like you because... It’s ok you don’t have it all together. I hear you. It’s ok to cry. You’re not alone.
If someone is struggling to receive these positive words, encouragement may look more like quietly joining them. It may mean driving your friend to his therapy appointment just to be with him when it’s over, or helping a spouse or child research support groups or doctors in the area. Even a still, non-verbal presence can be supportive.
5. Ask if they are suicidal
Sometimes depressed people want to die, and have a plan to do so. Others don’t want to die, but they don’t want to live life as it is.
There’s a difference between these two states of being, but the difference is not always clear to the untrained outsider. That’s why it is best to be clear in your responses to any talk, hint, or hunch about death or suicide.
If you are worried about your loved one’s safety because of their depression, ASK THEM DIRECTLY IF THEY ARE SUICIDAL AND IF THEY HAVE A PLAN TO HARM OR KILL THEMSELVES.
If they say “Yes” to either question, communicate they are not sure, or you suspect they may be in danger even if they say “No,” call emergency services or take them to the nearest hospital to be evaluated by a professional. It is always better to err on the side of caution.
It can feel overwhelming to be in close relationship with someone who is depressed. Good boundaries may be needed, along with intentional maintenance of your own health. Remember, you are not there to rescue, but to offer support as they battle their way to health and wellness.
Thank you for staying connected to this conversation and for taking the time to equip yourself relationally. You and your loved ones are worth it. Please do not lose hope.
If you have been affected by the issues discussed in this article, you can contact the Samaritans here.
Cyndie Randall is a writer with a poetry degree and a therapist who once lived in a psych hospital. Ever passionate about freedom-fighting and truth-telling, she believes the sharing of stories can lead to the sacred and healing ground of connection. Cyndie lives with her family in the only mitten-shaped state in the US, and is best friends with her dog, Happy.