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How to help someone with depression

Depression is a serious mental health condition that is characterised by persistent and overwhelming feelings of sadness. Whilst everyone can feel sad or upset on occasions, those with depression typically experience such crushing low moods that their ability to function on a day-to-day basis is impaired.

How can I help someone with depression?

It can be overwhelming when a loved one has depression, especially if you lack personal experience of dealing with mental health challenges. You may experience a sense of helplessness and frustration, 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 treatment journey.

Learn about depression and its symptoms

It’s important that you don’t underestimate depression; it is a serious condition that can have a negative impact upon all aspects of a person’s life, affecting them mentally, emotionally, socially and physically. The more you know about depression, the better you will be able to empathise with your loved one and the more effective you will be in helping them to find the professional care that they need. Aiming to develop a general understanding of the symptoms of depression and what to look out for, can help you to spot the warning signs and recognise when your loved one may be experiencing a particularly difficult time.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of depression to look out for include:

  • Intense feelings of sadness and hopelessness – your loved one may not be able to see the positives in any aspect of their life. They could have an incredibly bleak outlook on the future and may be more tearful and emotional than usual
  • Lack of interest in activities that they once enjoyed – depression can cause people to not only lose interest in their day-to-day routine and activities, but can also cause them to become indifferent to some of their favourite hobbies and pursuits. For example, if your loved one has always enjoyed playing or watching a particular sport and they seem to suddenly lose all interest in it, this could be a sign that they are struggling with depression
  • Anger, irritability and frustration – you may notice that your loved one is experiencing more angry outbursts than usual, or may become irritable and frustrated over what seem to be minor issues to you
  • Changes in appetite, resulting in weight loss or gain – depression can have a profound impact on an individual’s appetite. It can either cause people to lose their appetite which can result in weight loss, or people may experience an increase in their appetite which can lead to weight gain
  • Flat affect (reduced emotional reactivity) – people with depression can become apathetic and indifferent, and fail to react as they usually would to certain situations or people. For example, they may not become excited anymore about things that would usually excite them and they may not laugh at things that they would usually find funny
  • Relationship problems – the symptoms of depression can lead to people experiencing problems in their relationships. For example, the crushing low moods, flat affect and feelings of hopelessness that are associated with depression, can cause individuals to withdraw from the people who are closest to them, reduce the effort that they put into relationships and stop doing healthy activities together
  • Poor performance at work or school – again, the symptoms of depression can also reduce levels of motivation and concentration, which can have a negative impact on your loved one’s performance in a professional or educational environment. As an individual’s depression becomes worse, it may even prevent them from attending work or school/college. This can then lead to additional problems such as academic failure, disciplinary action at work and even unemployment

It’s important to be aware of these symptoms and whether they seem to be worsening with time. This could indicate that your loved one is likely to need professional help sooner rather than later, which means that you can act on this if necessary. It may be a good idea for you to actively try to keep track of their symptoms – for example, you could keep a mood diary for your loved one and make sure that you make a note of any symptoms or behaviours that worry you. This way, you will be able to track if their symptoms are becoming worse or more frequent.

For more information on the signs and symptoms of depression, please visit our dedicated depression symptoms page.

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 – it’s advisable for you to 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. That’s why it can be enormously helpful to offer practical support 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. Ultimately, 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.

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.

Look after yourself

When you’re supporting someone who’s struggling with depression, it’s important to look after yourself too and take steps to regulate your own emotions and mood. You could try practising mindfulness as a way of coping with any negative thoughts and feelings that you may be experiencing, or engaging in relaxation activities such as reflexology or massage which have been found to be effective in helping to release pent-up negative emotions. Or just simply taking a break and making time to do something that rejuvenates you, such as going for a walk or listening to music, can be enormously helpful. By looking after yourself effectively, you are more likely to have the emotional energy to support your loved one through their difficulties.

Don’t underestimate the risk of suicide

You may not believe that your loved one would ever think about taking their own life, but it’s important to understand that individuals with severe depression aren’t ‘thinking straight’; their judgement is clouded, their decision-making capabilities are impaired and they may genuinely not be able to see a way out. Therefore, being able to recognise the signs and symptoms that your loved one may be contemplating suicide is absolutely crucial so that you’re able to act quickly if needed.

Some of the warning signs for suicide include:

  • Saying things like: “I wish I was dead”, “I wish I’d never been born” or other expressions of self-loathing
  • Talking about hurting or killing themselves, or having a preoccupation with death
  • Saying that they’re a burden and people would be better off without them
  • Expressions of intense hopelessness, an inability to plan things even in the short-term future, and saying that they can’t see a way out or they feel trapped
  • Acquiring the means to take their own life e.g. buying and stockpiling pills, obtaining knives, guns or other lethal weapons/objects
  • Acting in self-destructive ways or engaging in dangerous activities e.g. drink driving, taking illegal drugs, drinking excessively
  • Taking steps to get their affairs in order
  • Giving their belongings away for no clear reason
  • Saying goodbye to loved ones in a way that suggests they don’t think they will see them again

If you’re worried that your loved one may be feeling suicidal, it’s so important to talk to them about this – it’s one of the best things you can do for someone who is contemplating taking their life. Tell them you’re concerned about their behaviour and query whether they’d ever think about hurting themselves, or worse. This direct approach can save a person’s life and it might just be the prompt that your loved one needs to open up and get help.

If it transpires that your loved one has been experiencing suicidal thoughts, there are a number of things you can do:

  • Ask them whether they have planned the method by which they would take their own life, or if it’s just been an initial thought at this stage. People who have planned their suicide are more likely to follow through with this
  • Keep reiterating two very important facts to your loved one:
    • They are not alone
    • They can get better
  • Try to make your loved one’s environment as safe as possible. For example, you could remove or lock away potential means by which they could end their life e.g. pills, knives, weapons
  • Seek help from a professional – it’s crucial to call your loved one’s doctor to report how they’re feeling and seek advice/help. If you think that your loved one is in immediate danger, contact the emergency services on 999

This page was clinically reviewed by Dr Sheetal Sirohi (MBBS, MRCPsych) in August 2019, and is scheduled to be reviewed again in August 2021.

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For details of how Priory can provide you with assistance regarding mental health and wellbeing, please call 0800 840 3219 or click here to submit an enquiry form. For professionals looking to make a referral, please click here

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