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How to help someone with depression

COVID-19: Customer Update

We are now resuming face-to-face therapy for existing patients across our network of hospitals and wellbeing centres, as well as continuing to offer this remotely for new patients. Remote therapy, along with consultant assessments, can be accessed via our Priory Connect online therapy service and through Skype.

Inpatient services are still available across our network of private healthcare hospitals, with flexible options for pre-admission assessments being offered.

How can I help someone with depression?

It can be overwhelming and frustrating when a loved one has depression, especially if you lack the knowledge of how to help them.

You may experience a sense of helplessness and, and feel as though you don’t know where to turn, or what to do for the best. However, the support of friends and family can play a hugely important role in helping someone recovering from depression, which is why it’s so important that you’re aware of the things you can do to help.

Even some of the smallest gestures and actions can go a long way towards improving your loved one’s symptoms and supporting them on their recovery and depression treatment journey.

How to talk to someone with depression

If you have recognised the signs and symptoms of depression in someone close to you, it can be incredibly helpful, for both you and your loved one, to have an open and honest conversation about it, so that you can begin to develop an understanding of what they’re going through and reassure them that they’re not alone.

However, we understand that the prospect of initiating this dialogue can be daunting, and you may be worried about upsetting your loved one or making them feel even worse. That’s why it’s important to spend some time planning when would be the best time to start this conversation with them, and the types of things you can say.

  • When to do it – the best time to raise this subject with your loved one may be in a situation where you know they feel as relaxed and at ease as possible. It’s also important to try and think of a place where you’re unlikely to be interrupted, so that their attention remains on you and the conversation itself. For example, you could suggest going for a walk in a relatively quiet area, or having a coffee at home when there are no other people about
  • How to start the conversation – start off in a non-confrontational, open-ended way. If you go straight in and tell them that you think they’re depressed, this approach could feel a bit too overwhelming for the individual and could cause them to withdraw and be hesitant to talk to you about it. Instead, you could try to focus the questioning from your perspective, instead of putting it all on them. For example, you could say things like: “I’ve been a bit worried about you lately”, “I’ve noticed that you haven’t been yourself and wanted to talk to you about it” or “I wanted to check in with you to see how you’re doing”. The focus on ‘I’ instead of ‘you’ makes it more likely that a person will feel comfortable enough to open up to you as they’re unlikely to feel as though they’re completely in the spotlight – you’re making it about how you feel as well as how they feel
  • Questions to ask – after you have initiated the conversation and your loved one seems willing to talk to you about how they’re feeling, it’s a good idea to have some questions ready to ask them. This can help you to gain more information about their mood and emotions, and places you in a better position to be able to help. More specific questions such as: “how long have you been feeling this way?”, “how do you feel on a general day-to-day basis?” and “has something happened to make you feel this way?” can help you to paint a more accurate picture of the situation and also gives them the opportunity to get these things off their chest

Listen to what they have to say

People with depression can often feel isolated and find it hard to talk about their depression. Being willing to talk openly with your loved one about their feelings, and listen to what they have to say, is a very important step – it lets them know that it’s OK for them to open up about the difficult emotions that they’re experiencing, and that they’re not alone.

Whilst your loved one is talking to you about how they’re feeling, make sure that you respond in a compassionate way. Using supportive phrases such as: “I’m here for you”, “you don’t have to suffer in silence” and “I care about you and I want to help” shows your loved one that, no matter what they might be going through and how negative everything may feel to them, they are loved and valued.

It’s also important to be an active listener and really immerse yourself in the conversation. Use verbal and non-verbal prompts during the conversation, such as saying “yes”, “mm hmm” and nodding, maintain eye contact throughout, and regularly paraphrase what your loved one says back to them, to clarify meaning and demonstrate that you have understood them.

This feedback is truly invaluable in letting someone know that you really do care about what they’re saying, and it also makes them realise how easy and natural it is to open up to you which therefore increases the likelihood of them confiding in you in the future, whenever they need to.

Avoid being critical or making assumptions

If you have never experienced depression, it can be difficult to understand what your loved one is going through, which is why it’s so important to avoid being critical, impatient, or putting pressure on them to recover. They’re probably being very self-critical already and therefore, responding to their needs in a non-judgemental way shows them that you recognise that what they’re going through is difficult, even if you can’t relate to it yourself.

Remember, depression is different for everyone and is experienced subjectively. Therefore it’s really important that you don’t try to make comparisons or assumptions, or try to imagine how you would feel in your loved one’s situation. The only thing this is likely to do is make them feel invalidated and misunderstood, which could then lead to a further decline in their mood as well as discouraging them from opening up.

Also, try not to take things personally. Your loved one may seem quite apathetic and disinterested, both in what you have to say and in life more generally. However, this isn’t a reflection on how they feel about you or your efforts to help them, it’s just simply the nature of depression. Helping them to open up is the first step on their road to recovery – the key is patience and persistence.

Be there for them – and let them know it

Depression can have a profoundly negative impact not just on the emotional elements of a person’s life, but also on the more practical and functional aspects. They may struggle to keep on top of daily chores and responsibilities due to a lack of energy or general interest in day-to-day life.

it can be enormously helpful to offer practical support to your loved one, whenever they need it. Ask them about the ways in which you can help them and offer suggestions – they may find it useful if you could complete their weekly shop, help them with some laundry or cleaning, or even help them to cook a few healthy meals.

Also, little gestures to let your loved one know that you’re thinking of them and you’re there for them can go a long way. Buy them their favourite magazine, surprise them with flowers, pick up the phone to tell them you love them, or just sit with them in silence – it can all really help.

Support them to seek help for depression

You can’t force someone to seek help if they don’t want to, but letting them know that it isn’t a sign of weakness to ask for help, can be a very proactive step in their road to recovery.

Depression is treatable, and this is a key message to try and reinforce to your loved one. Researching and connecting with a mental health professional will enable your loved one’s condition to be evaluated and some proactive next steps put in place.

If they’re nervous about speaking to a professional, offer to go with them to any initial appointments and help them to make a list of their symptoms to talk through. Aside from talking to a professional, it’s also a good idea to encourage your loved one to open up to someone else they trust, whether that’s a friend or family member. This means that they are able to broaden their network of support and lean on other people for help and advice, as well as you.

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Support them through depression treatment

Depending on the severity of your loved one’s depression, and where they are able to access support, the typical treatment that they receive will be a combination of antidepressant medication and talking therapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

During this process, you can support your loved one by helping them to keep appointments, making sure they’re always up to date with any prescriptions, encouraging them to practise the coping techniques that they have learned in therapy and checking in on them regularly. Also, let them know that you’re there to listen if they want to talk about their therapy sessions and the progress that they’re making.

Above all, be patient throughout the process – recovery doesn’t have a timescale or a deadline.

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Sheetal Sirohi (MBBS, MRCPsych) in August 2021, and is scheduled to be reviewed again in August 2023.

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