When you love someone who has depression, all you want to do is help. But you might also feel powerless to make it better.
If you’ve found yourself in that position—worried about someone with depression but not sure what to do about it—you’re not alone. About 7 percent of American adults suffer from depression every year, and their loved ones often struggle alongside them.
“Depression is hard on family and friends because the line between ‘I want to help’ and ‘I worry I’m getting too personal’ can be a fuzzy and sensitive one,” says UNC Health psychiatrist Bradley Gaynes, MD, MPH.
If you care about someone with depression, Dr. Gaynes has tips on how to try to help—and how to protect your own mental health.
Understand What Depression Is
Depression is a mood disorder that interferes with a person’s ability to complete daily tasks and enjoy life. Common symptoms of depression include persistent sadness, anxiety and feelings of emptiness or hopelessness. People with depression often lose interest in things they used to enjoy. They might have trouble sleeping, or they might sleep too much, and their appetite and weight can fluctuate. Depression can cause irritability, physical aches and pains, and thoughts of death or suicide.
Not everyone with depression will have the same symptoms, but whatever symptoms they do experience last for at least two weeks. Depression is more than being in a bad mood or a funk. A person also doesn’t need a diagnosis to be depressed; while depression often responds favorably to treatment, most people with depression do not seek help.
Offer Help in a Way That’s Meaningful to the Person with Depression
You might want to encourage your loved one to seek treatment, which can include therapy and medication, but this needs to be done with sensitivity.
The first step in helping people with depression is to let them know you are there for them, Dr. Gaynes says.
“Tell them that you care about them and want to hear if there is something distressing them. You want them to realize that they’re not alone,” he says.
The next step is to find out what they want in terms of support. Most people are not going to want to be told what to do—“go see a therapist!”—and that suggestion might end the conversation quickly. Sometimes people just want to be heard, sometimes they need something specific, and sometimes they want advice.
How do you find out?
“Just ask them,” Dr. Gaynes says. “You can say, ‘What you’re telling me about sounds pretty upsetting. What can I do to help?’ They might have an idea, so let them tell you. If they don’t have an idea, you might be able to suggest some things.”
Depending on the situation, that might mean making an appointment so the person can talk to his or her primary care doctor or researching an online support group. It might be buying a book on living with depression or offering to come over once a week to take a walk together. The options are endless, but what matters is you’re “meeting them where they are,” Dr. Gaynes says.
Help Identify Opportunities for Enjoyment
Sometimes, well-meaning loved ones will get in an argument with the depressed person about whether he or she is depressed, Dr. Gaynes says. That’s not effective.
Rather than focusing on “I want to make you less depressed,” think about “how can we get you back to those things that you get pleasure from?” Dr. Gaynes says.
So you might say, “I notice you haven’t been taking long walks with the dog as much lately. How can we help you enjoy doing that again?”
More language from Dr. Gaynes that might be helpful: “Let’s find a way to get you more of what you need. I don’t have all the answers, but I love you. Let’s try to figure this out together.”
Be Ready to Act in an Emergency
If the person you love talks about dying or says it would be better if he or she weren’t here anymore, it’s important to take that seriously. Don’t be afraid to talk about suicide and ask direct questions, Dr. Gaynes says, such as:
- Have you been having that thought a lot?
- Have you thought about how you might harm yourself?
- Have you made a plan?
- Have you spoken to anyone else about these thoughts?
- Do you think you can stay safe and not hurt yourself?
The answers can help guide you on what to do next, Dr. Gaynes says. You can go to the person and tell him or her that you are there to help and to find a way to feel better. You might call another friend or loved one to provide added support.
Someone who has made a plan for suicide is especially at risk, Dr. Gaynes says. If you think the person is in immediate danger, call 911.
Take Care of Yourself, Too
If you love someone with depression, it’s not your fault, and you’re not responsible for making the person better, Dr. Gaynes says.
“People will often feel it’s something they did wrong or there’s something they didn’t do, and that made the person depressed,” he says. “Most of the time, the person is depressed for a variety of reasons, and it has nothing to do with anyone else’s actions.”
It’s important to take care of yourself, even as you’re trying to help a loved one. That means eating healthy, sleeping and finding ways to relax and enjoy your own life.
“You still need to do things to help you remain healthy,” Dr. Gaynes says.
Need help with depression or another mental health concern? Find a provider who can help.