You may feel powerless and unsure how to help if someone close to you — a relative, partner, or friend — is currently struggling with depression, but research has shown that your role as a support person can be crucial. People who aren't ready to see their doctor are incredibly likely to discuss their struggles with a family member and ask for their advice, for instance, and depressed folks who have the solid support of loved ones are also more likely to recover from depression faster.
The ways in which you can support someone with depression are going to look very different depending on who they are to you; while you may simply be a supportive listening ear for a cousin, day-to-day care tasks may fall on you if your partner is depressed. The general idea, however, remains the same.
1. Educate yourself about depression
People who would meet the diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder and wind up with the label of "depression" if they saw a doctor don't always realize it while they're in the thick of their symptoms. They may know they're struggling without understanding exactly how severely their depression impacts their daily functioning, and they may also believe that seeking help is pointless because nothing is going to make them feel better.
Because research shows that more than 50 percent of depressed people do discuss their symptoms with their family — and let's face it, friends who are technically unrelated can also definitely fall into this category — your depressed loved one is likely to turn to you for help, support, or advice at some point. Being able to recognize the symptoms of clinical depression can come in handy here, as you can tell your loved one what changes you have noticed in them.
There are nine diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder, and a person has to meet five of them — including the first two — for at least two weeks to "qualify" for a diagnosis:
- Feeling depressed on most days, for most of the day — your loved one may be visibly sad, tearful, low, moody, express pessimistic thoughts, appear emotionally numb, and may sometimes also be excessively irritable.
- Depressed people lose interest in daily activities, including those that were once meaningful, or have a diminished interest. If your relative or friend who normally lives for basketball suddenly doesn't want to play, they seem to have trouble getting out of bed and having a shower, they seem demotivated at work, or aren't interested in socializing much, those signs may point to clinical depression.
- Weight gain or weight loss that's caused by appetite changes associated with depression are also common.
- People with depression may physically move differently than they did before, being slower and appearing lethargic, or physically agitated and restless.
- Feelings of guilt and worthlessness are other hallmarks of depression that your loved one may verbally express.
- Depressed people are often indecisive and have trouble concentrating, both of which are things you may notice.
- Finally, at the more severe end of the spectrum, people suffering from depression can struggle with thoughts about death and suicide. In one of my relatives, this showed up as getting their affairs in order, including distributing possessions and writing people personal emails that seemed to be saying good bye in some way — suicidal feelings sometimes become apparent even if a person doesn't explicitly share that they are thinking of committing suicide.
2. Encourage your loved one to seek help
Nobody likes to be the one to tell a loved one it's time to visit a doctor or shrink for mental health services, but doing it anyway may save your friend's or relative's life, and can certainly improve their quality of life. If your loved one values your opinions and insights, share the symptoms of depression you noticed in them, and tell them that you do believe it would be good if they could seek help — even offering to accompany them to the doctor if they'd like. Here, it may be helpful to emphasize that depression is incredibly common and nothing to be ashamed of. Treatment is available, and they can recover.
3. Ring the alarm bells if you are concerned
Laws will vary per jurisdiction, but in many places, you'll be able to contact your loved one's primary care provider with concerns if you think your loved one may be at risk of hurting themselves or someone around them. This may set the ball toward outpatient or even inpatient care rolling. Your loved one won't thank you for this — not right away, at least — but it could save their lives.
4. Support your loved one as they recover from depression
Depending on your relationship with the depressed person, this could take many forms:
- Simply be there for your loved one, offering a shoulder to cry on or a sounding board for thoughts.
- Encourage your depressed friend or relative to attend social gatherings or activities.
- Ask them about their treatment for depression, and be supportive as they try their best to stick with antidepressants and/or therapy, even if the side effects are difficult to deal with or the therapy causes emotional pain as they process underlying concerns.
- Especially if you live with the depressed person you're reading this for, you can play a crucial role in helping create or maintain the routines that are so important during recovery from depression.
5. Look after yourself, too
Depression doesn't only affect depressed people, but everyone else around them, too. This is even more true if your loved one is a partner, child, sibling, or relative; someone you share a home with. Caregiver burnout is real. Remember that you can best support your loved one if you have the physical and mental energy to do so, and be sure to look after yourself, as well. Do things you enjoy even if your loved one isn't enjoying much at the moment, and meet your own basic needs. If you're trying to support someone very close to you, you may find it helpful to seek out therapy for yourself, too.