How to Help a Loved One With Depression Without Harming Yourself

8 minute read

We often think of celebrities as these untouchable beings who live ideal, perfect lives and have everything that they’ve ever wanted or needed. Then we get struck with the harsh reality that suffering and mood disorders can affect anyone.

Earlier this year, the world was rocked by the suicide deaths of designer Kate Spade and chef/television personality Anthony Bourdain, which occurred just three days apart. Spade had suffered from depression for years, and Bourdain had mentioned suicide and loneliness several times throughout his career.

The one positive thing that comes out of tragedies such as these is that it gets people talking. Talking about depression, mental illness, and mood disorders, which is what we need to be doing.

Over 300 million people around the world suffer from depression, but only about half of them receive treatment. De-stigmatizing mental and mood disorders could open up the gates to more people getting the help that they need, and that change, and help, begins with conversation and being there for the people you love.

You Are Their Support, Not a Cure

Depression is a treatable illness that many people are able to cope with and overcome, but don’t take that responsibility for wellness on yourself. Their condition is no one’s fault, not yours or theirs, and the best things that you can do is listen, support, and simply be there for them.

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Remind them that you are there, that they are important to you, and don’t let them feel like they are alone, because they aren’t.

You Are Not a Cheerleader

All kinds of people suffer from depression, even those friends or loved ones whose lives seem ideal. Instead of highlighting how good they have it and why they should feel better, just acknowledge the pain that they’re going through.

Depression isn’t something that you can cure by cheering them up and feeding them positive thoughts. Let them know that it’s okay to feel the way that they do, and also let them know how much they mean to you. Listening and understanding is more important here than talking.

Ask Direct Questions—This Includes Suicide

Be clear and direct when you’re finding out what you can do to help. These are often the easier questions to bring up.

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Is there something in the day-to-day that you can pitch in with? Are there any treatments or medications that they’re currently taking? What is the contact information for the medical professionals and other close friends and family members that should be notified during a crisis?

Know that it’s okay to ask if they’re thinking about suicide. While many people with depression do not contemplate suicide, over 50% of all people who die by suicide also have major depression.

Don’t be afraid of bringing the subject up. You won’t offend or inadvertently encourage suicidal thoughts.

If your loved one answers yes, then follow-up questions should include asking about when and where, so that you have a better chance of preventing them from hurting themselves. Though this answer may come as a shock, remain calm while you gather the facts, and refrain from passing any sort of judgement.

Take Any Mention of Death Seriously

Even a casual or offhand remark about death or suicide should be taken seriously. Ask questions, and if you’re not sure that they are safe, get professional help immediately.

This includes their psychiatrist or therapist if they’re seeing one, the emergency room, or calling 911 and asking for a crisis intervention team. 1-800-273-TALK is a confidential suicide prevention hotline that is available 24/7 and is free.

What You Can Do to Help Them Get Help

You are not solely responsible for your friend’s recovery. Someone with major depression needs professional help in order to feel better, which includes a medical professional like a psychiatrist or psychologist.

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You can’t control their path to wellness, and you can’t force them to go to a medical professional, but what you can do is to make that first visit as easy as possible for them. Do the research for them to find help that they can afford, gather recommendations, or be there for them while they call to set up that initial appointment. You could even go with them to that first meeting if you’re both comfortable with it.

Getting a professional involved is a big step in the right direction, so do your best to support, help, and be there for them during this process.

Remember to Take Care of Yourself, Too

No matter how they are when they’re healthy, depression may make people say hurtful things that they wouldn’t normally. They may try to pick fights or say things that are painful for you to listen to.

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It’s important to set boundaries. Acknowledge the hurt that they are experiencing, but let them know that it is not okay for them to say things like that to you. Be straightforward in letting them know that you understand what they’re going through, but that doesn’t mean that they can resort to abusive behavior.

Taking care of yourself may also mean not being available every second of every day. While you may want to be there all the time for your friend, sometimes it’s just not possible.

Let them know that you care and that they’re important to you, but also be clear when you let them know when you won’t be available for them. Setting up a regular schedule for when you can get together may help.

There Is a Light and It Never Goes Out

Don’t forget that depression is a treatable condition that, for many people, is manageable and they are able to live normal, healthy lives.

If you start to feel yourself get mired down in how hard things are at the moment, remember that it will not last forever, that help is out there, and never give up hope.

The Bottom Line

Listen. Understand. Be there. These are the most important things that you can do for a friend or loved one who is suffering from depression.

Open up the conversation so that they don’t feel like they’re an outsider or alone because they suffer from a mood disorder. Being a supportive, reliable friend can go a long way, and who knows, could even save a life.

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