Depression is an incredibly vast, challenging, and pervasive mental health condition that affects millions of individuals worldwide. When someone you care about is struggling with depression, it can be difficult to know how to help. However, your support and understanding can make a significant difference in their journey towards healing. Various compassionate ways that you can help support a friend or loved one struggling with depression can be found below
What is Depression?
Depression, also known as major depressive disorder (MDD) or clinical depression, is a common and very serious mental health condition characterized by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of interest or pleasure in activities. It goes beyond the normal ups and downs of everyday life and can significantly affect a person's daily functioning, relationships, and overall well-being. Depression affects an estimated one in 15 adults every year, and one in six people will experience depression at some time in their life. Depression can occur at any time in a person’s life. On average, however, it first appears during the late teens to mid-20s. Women are more likely than men to experience depression and some studies show that one-third of women will experience a major depressive episode in their lifetime.
Additionally, there is a high degree of heritability (approximately 40%) when first-degree relatives (parents/children/siblings) have depression. Losing a loved one, getting fired from a job, going through a divorce, and other difficult life situations can lead a person to feel sad, lonely, and even scared. These feelings are normal reactions to life's stressors. Most people also often feel low and sad at times. However, in the case of individuals who are diagnosed with depression as a psychiatric disorder, the manifestations of the low mood are much more severe and they tend to persist over long periods.
Understanding Depression and How to Recognize Depression Symptoms
Like sadness, depression is common and a normal part of life for a lot of people. However, it is important to know the differences so you can better decipher when you or someone you care about needs more support. Key characteristics and symptoms of depression may include:
- Persistent Sadness: A pervasive feeling of sadness, emptiness, or despair that lasts for most of the day, nearly every day, for at least two weeks or longer.
- Loss of Interest or Pleasure: A diminished interest or pleasure in once enjoyable activities, including hobbies, social interactions, or even basic self-care.
- Changes in Sleep Patterns: Depression can lead to either insomnia (difficulty sleeping) or hypersomnia (excessive sleeping). Sleep disturbances are a very common symptom.
- Fatigue: Persistent feelings of tiredness, low energy, or a sense of being physically and mentally drained.
- Changes in Appetite or Weight: Significant changes in appetite, leading to either weight loss or weight gain. This can also manifest as changes in eating patterns.
- Difficulty Concentrating: Trouble focusing, making decisions, or remembering things. Everyday cognitive functions may be impaired in those with depression.
- Feelings of Worthlessness or Guilt: Excessive or irrational guilt, feelings of worthlessness, or a sense that one is a burden to others.
- Physical Symptoms: Some individuals with depression may experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomachaches, or general aches and pains.
- Suicidal Thoughts: In severe cases, depression may lead to thoughts of death or suicide, or even suicide attempts.
Depression is an incredibly complex condition with various contributing factors, including genetic makeup, brain chemistry, life events, and personality traits. It can affect individuals of all ages, sex, gender, and background. In most cases, depression also co-occurs with other mental health disorders, including, but not limited to, anxiety disorders, substance abuse, bipolar disorder, autism, and ADHD.
15 Ways to Help a Friend or Loved One Experiencing Depression
After familiarizing yourself with the signs, symptoms, and experiences of depression, you may be able to better recognize these signs in a friend or loved one and want to help them, but you are unsure of how to approach them. Here are some key factors to consider when helping and supporting a friend with depression:
- Educate Yourself: Before offering your support, be sure to take the time to educate yourself about depression to best understand the symptoms and causes that the person in your life might be experiencing. Familiarizing yourself with treatments can help you empathize with your friend and provide informed assistance.
- Open Communication: It is important to create a safe, open, and non-judgemental space for your friend to talk about their feelings and experiences. Let them know that you are there to listen without offering “fix-it solutions” or unsolicited advice.
- Offer Your Presence: Sometimes, simply being there for your friend or loved one can provide an enormous amount of comfort. Offer your physical presence through visits phone calls and text messages, ensuring that they do not feel alone in their struggle.
- Encourage Professional Help: Depression often requires professional treatment. Encourage your friend to seek help from a therapist or psychiatrist. Offer to help them find a suitable fit for a healthcare provider and even accompany them to appointments if they’re comfortable.
- Respect Their Privacy: While it is crucial to be supportive, it is also important to respect the privacy of your friend or loved one. Be sure to avoid pushing them to share more than they are comfortable with and refrain from discussing their experiences with others without their consent
- Normalize Their Feelings: Let your friend know that their feelings are valid and that depression is a mental illness, NOT any kind of personal failure. Normalizing their experience can significantly reduce the shame and stigma they may feel.
- Stay in Touch: Depression can cause significant isolation tendencies. Make an effort to regularly stay in touch, even if it is as simple as sending a text message or making a quick phone call to check in on them.
- Offer Practical Help: Depression can make even the simplest tasks feel overwhelming or undoable. Offer practical and tangible assistance such as cooking a meal, running errands, or helping with housework. Any task that may help to lighten their load.
- Engage in Gentle Encouragement: Encourage your friend to engage in activities they once enjoyed, but be sure to do so gently and without pressure. Offer to join them in these activities if they are comfortable.
- Learn About Medication: If your friend is prescribed any medications, educate yourself about the medication’s purpose and potential side effects. Offer your support in staying in a consistent part with their treatment plan.
- Be Patient: Recovery from depression is not linear, and there are bound to be setbacks. Be patient with your friend or loved one’s progress and avoid expressing any kind of frustration if they do not seem to be “getting better” as quickly as you anticipate.
- Offer a Listening Ear, Not Solutions: When your friend talks about their struggles and experiences, remember that they may not be seeking any solutions. Often, they just need someone to listen and empathize with their pain.
- Be Mindful of Triggers: Take the time to learn about your friend’s triggers and be mindful of them. Avoid discussing sensitive topics or situations that may worsen their depression.
- Suggest Self-Care Activities: Activities for self-care can help alleviate depression symptoms. Such activities may include meditation, exercise, journaling, spending time outside, practicing good hygiene, creating a routine, reading, or art making.
- Take Care of Yourself: Supporting a friend with depression can be emotionally taxing. Be sure to prioritize your mental health and seek support or counseling if you feel overwhelmed.
What to Avoid
Supporting a friend with depression can be challenging, but it's essential to approach it with care and sensitivity. Here are some things to avoid when helping a friend with depression:
- Minimizing Their Feelings: Avoid telling your friend to "snap out of it" or that their depression is “just a phase.” Depression is a real and complex mental health condition, and it is important to acknowledge their feelings and validate their experiences.
- Offering Unsolicited Advice: While you may have good intentions, offering solutions like "just think positive" or "try to be happier" can come across as incredibly dismissive or invalidating. Depression is not something anyone can simply control with sheer willpower.
- Trying to Fix Them: You cannot "fix" your friend's depression. Avoid taking on the role of a therapist or trying to solve all their problems. Instead, be there to simply support and listen.
- Comparing Their Experiences to Others: Avoid saying things such as, "I know someone who had it worse" or "I've been through tough times too." Depression is a highly individual experience, and comparing their struggles to others can make them feel invalidated.
- Ignoring Their Feelings: Don't ignore or downplay your friend's emotions. Depression can lead to overwhelming sadness, anger, loneliness, and frustration. Therefore it is essential to acknowledge and address these feelings.
- Pushing Them to Socialize: While encouraging your friends to engage in social activities can be helpful, don't pressure them to do things they're not ready for. Respect their need for solitude or time alone when necessary.
- Being Judgmental: Avoid making judgmental comments or implying that their depression is their fault. It's not a choice or a character flaw.
- Forcing Them to Talk: While it's essential to be available to listen, do not force your friend to talk about their feelings if they are not comfortable. Give them space when needed.
- Neglecting Self-Care: Remember to take care of yourself too. Supporting a friend with depression can be emotionally taxing, so make sure you have your own support system and boundaries in place.
Instead of these pitfalls, focus on being empathetic, patient, and understanding. Encourage your friend to seek professional help if they haven't already and offer your continued support throughout their journey to recovery. Sometimes, simply being there to listen and show that you care can make a significant difference in their life.
Supporting a friend with depression requires patience, empathy, and understanding. By educating yourself about depression, offering a listening ear, and encouraging professional help, you can make a positive impact on your friend's journey to recovery. Remember that your presence and compassion can be a beacon of hope in their darkest moments.
Written By: Emily Mathews, MA
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff specializing in therapy and psychiatry services. Clarity Clinic currently offers Medication Management, Therapy, and TMS Services across Illinois. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic at (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.