Depression doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It causes a ripple effect that touches everyone surrounding the person. Family members and friends often feel helpless, not knowing how to reach out or what to do to help their suffering loved one.
It would be nice if the depressed person could vocalize their needs, so that friends and families knew exactly what to say and do. However, according to J. Raymond DePaulo Jr., MD, a former professor of psychiatry and the director of the affective disorders clinic at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore, their relationship skills are significantly diminished. Communication becomes problematic because the person is embarrassed to say how they feel, anticipating judgment.
How does a family member proceed, then, with little or no direction? Every individual is different in how they handle the beast of depression, but here are a few universal things you can try that will empower both you and your loved one toward recovery and hope.
1. Educate Yourself About Depression and Other Mood Disorders
You may not be able to cure your loved one. But you can better understand his or her condition by educating yourself about depression or the kind of mood disorder he or she has. Reading up on your loved one’s illness will help you feel more in control of the situation and give you more patience to tolerate the confusing or frustrating symptoms.
Here are some places to start:
- Families for Depression Awareness helps families recognize and cope with depression and bipolar disorder to get people well and prevent suicides. They offer education, training, and support to unite families and help them heal while coping with mood disorders.
- Depression Bipolar Support Alliance Family Center is a place of “compassion, hope, and understanding” that provides a wide variety of family-focused resources and information, such as How to Help Someone in Crisis, Help With Symptoms and Treatment, and Help With Relationships.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Family Support Group is a peer-led support group for family members, caregivers, and loved ones of individuals living with mental illness. You can gain insight from the challenges and successes of others facing similar circumstances.
2. Ask Questions and Dig for the Root Cause
The best way to understand a subject is to research it like a journalist and ask a lot of questions. With depression and anxiety, asking questions is critical because the terrain is so vast and each person’s experience is so different. Chances are that your friend is not going to voluntarily cough up the information that you need, because he or she is too ashamed of the symptoms and afraid he or she will be judged. To better know what’s going on, you must dig for the information. Here are a few questions to consider:
- When did you first start to feel bad?
- Can you think of anything that may have triggered it?
- Do you have suicidal thoughts?
- Is there anything that makes you feel better?
- What makes you feel worse?
- Are you under stress?
You know your sister, friend, brother, or father better than most mental health professionals, so help them solve the riddle of their symptoms. Together consider what could be at the root of their depression: physiologically, emotionally, or spiritually. Where is the disconnect?
3. Help Them Identify and Cope With Sources of Stress
It’s no secret that stress is a significant contributor to depression. Chronic levels of stress pour cortisol into your bloodstream and cause inflammation in your nervous system and every other biological system. In a study of rats published in May 2017 in Scientific Reports, conducted by researchers at universities in Aarhus and Aalborg, Denmark, stress was shown to reduce the brain’s innate ability to keep itself healthy. The hippocampus, which regulates mood, shrinks, negatively impacting our short-term memory function and learning abilities.
Stress also interrupts healthy coping strategies, which makes a person more vulnerable to mood swings. Your job is to help your loved one identify sources of stress in his or her life and brainstorm about ways to reduce it. These don’t have to be dramatic changes. Small tweaks to your day, like employing some deep breathing techniques, can go far in reversing the detrimental effects of stress.
4. Encourage Them to Seek Out a Support Group
It doesn’t matter what the illness is — cardiovascular disease, colon cancer, fibromyalgia — a person needs support in her or his life to fully recover: people with whom they can vent and swap horror stories, folks who can remind them that they are not alone even though their symptoms make them feel that way.
Research shows that support groups aid the recovery of a person struggling with depression and decrease chances of relapse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in which 158 women with metastatic breast cancer were assigned to supportive-expressive therapy. These women showed greater improvement in psychological symptoms and reported less pain than the women with breast cancer who were assigned to the control group with no supportive therapy. Brainstorm with your friend on ways to get more support. Research and share with your friend various groups (online or in town) that might be of benefit.
5. Remind Them That They’re Incredibly Strong
“When you’re depressed, you don’t believe that you’re worthy of love,” explains Dr. DePaulo in Understanding Depression: What We Know and What You Can Do About It. That’s what makes relationships and especially communication so difficult. One way of nudging them to recovery is by reminding them of their strengths. Use concrete examples. Cite times in their lives they exemplified courage, stamina, compassion, integrity, and perseverance. Use photos, if you have them, of accomplishments in the past or victories that will bolster their confidence and encourage them down the path of healing.
6. Make Them Smile, Because Laughter Helps and Heals
As I mentioned in my post “10 Things I Do Every Day to Beat Depression,” research says that laughing is one of the best things we can do for our health. Humor can help us heal from a number of illnesses. When I was hospitalized for severe depression in 2005, one of the psychiatric nurses on duty decided that one session of group therapy would consist of watching a comedian (on tape) poke fun at depression. For an hour, we all exchanged glances as if to say “Is it okay to laugh?” The effect was surprisingly powerful. Whenever the “black dog” (as Winston Churchill called depression) has gotten a hold of a friend, I try to make her laugh, because in laughing, some of her fear and panic disappear.
7. Let Them Know They Won’t Always Feel This Way
If I had to name one thing a person (or persons) said to me when I was severely depressed that made me feel better, it would be this: “You won’t always feel this way.” It is a simple statement of truth that holds the most powerful healing element of all: hope. As a friend or family member, your hardest job is to get your friend or brother or dad or sister to have hope again: to believe that they will get better. Once their heart is there, their mind and body will follow shortly.
8. If You Do Only One Thing, Let It Be Listening
You could disregard everything I’ve written and just do this: Listen. Suspend all judgments, save all interjections … do nothing more than make excellent eye contact and open your ears. In her bestselling book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes:
“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to
Culled from Everyday Health