When a friend, family member or partner is depressed, it’s difficult to know what to say or do to help. It can also be frustrating—it might seem like nothing that you do makes a difference. Though this can seem like an uphill battle, there are ways to help someone with depression. You may find that several of these strategies improve your own life while helping your loved one.
First, What is Depression?
Depression can be defined as feelings of sadness, loss of energy, worthlessness or guilt for an extended period. There are many different types of depression, which last for varying periods. Persistent Depressive Disorder (PDD), for example, is a long period of depression generally lasting two years or more. Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) generally lasts for a shorter time period, but can be more severe. Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) occurs during winter months, Peripartum or Postpartum Depression occurs during pregnancy or just after childbirth, and comorbid depression occurs alongside another physical or mental disorder. There are other types of depression as well, but the strategies you can use to help someone with depression will be similar.
Can I Fix My Loved One’s Depression?
It should be understood that there is no ‘cure’ or ‘fix’ for depression. Some methods and lifestyle changes have been shown to improve symptoms of depression, but it is important to remember that many symptoms of depression are outside your and your loved one’s control. Some of the best ways to help someone with depression is to maintain patience, be a good listener, and encourage a healthy lifestyle, which we will discuss in this post. You cannot ‘fix’ your loved one’s depression, and you should not feel responsible for doing so.
7 Ways to Help Someone With Depression
1. Validate Their Feelings
People suffering from depression may show many different feelings, not just sadness. Anger, isolation, frustration and a variety of other feelings may appear. Your first instinct may be to console them using phrases like “it’s not that bad” or “look on the bright side.” However, this may frustrate your loved one further, making them feel as though they aren’t being heard.
Consider the following responses instead:
- That sounds really difficult. I’m here for you.
- It sounds like you’re going through a tough time. How are you feeling?
- That is a frustrating situation. I’m not sure how to help, but I’m listening.
- I’m not sure I understand (a part of the situation). Can you tell me more?
2. Suggest Counseling
One of the best ways that you can help someone with depression is to gently suggest counseling. Professional counselors and therapists use strategies supported by research to help people with depression. These experts are also trained to maintain patience, calm, and a healthy level of emotional distance, so they do not become overwhelmed, as a friend or family member might.
Your loved one might have some apprehension about counseling. Here are some responses you might give.
“I can’t afford counseling.”
There are a number of free and affordable counseling options, and it might not be as expensive as you think.
“I don’t want to talk to a stranger.”
A counselor is trained to treat depression. They are also non-judgemental and maintain strict confidentiality.
“It won’t help.”
Counseling has been shown to help symptoms of depression. These methods are studied extensively, and have improved the lives of millions of people.
“I don’t want to talk about my past.”
Modern therapy isn’t the same as how it’s depicted in movies or shows, and doesn’t always involve past events. Knowing what to expect from modern therapy might help.
3. Practice Good Listening
It can be understandably difficult to listen to the negative thoughts and pessimistic predictions that come with depression. However, it’s important to remember that no one—including your loved one—wants to be depressed. They are not trying to annoy you, exasperate you, or get your attention with their depression. With this in mind, one of the best ways you can help someone with depression is to simply listen.
It’s okay if you don’t know what to say to your friend or loved one. Don’t worry about saying the right thing. Instead, try to understand how your loved one feels, and their perspective on the situation. Face them, give them your full attention, and ask questions if you don’t understand. Remember that your loved one is probably not looking to you for a solution, but rather someone to talk to.
4. Be a Good Health Role Model
Though a healthy diet, adequate sleep and exercise alone will not “cure” depression, these things have been shown to decrease symptoms. Eating more fruits, vegetables, and unprocessed foods has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. This makes sense, since a number of vitamins and minerals, such as B vitamins, folic acid, iodine, folate, and zinc, all contribute to our production, use, and consumption of energy and hormones, which affects our mood. Exercise has also been shown to improve mood by supporting healthy growth of nerve cells in the brain. Finally, sleep also has dramatic impacts on brain function. All of these things combined can help someone with depression, but these habits can be difficult to start.
Often, people with depression find it difficult to get the energy or impulse to cook, exercise, or maintain a regular sleep schedule. You can help someone with depression by encouraging healthy eating and exercise when you are together, and also by living a healthy lifestyle yourself. Don’t worry about emphasizing the impact of healthy eating, sleeping and exercise—most likely, your loved one has already heard it. Instead, try the following:
- Make a habit: Take a walk together or cook healthy meals together on a regular basis, as a shared activity.
- Emphasize the impact on your life: Mention how you feel after exercising, or the impact healthy eating or a regular sleep schedule has had on your life.
- Cook for your loved one: Cooking is a skill and it takes time. If possible, help your loved one by cooking some healthy meals for them.
- Recommend activities: Ask your loved one to join you on fun physical activities or trips, such as playing sports, hiking, canoeing, camping, frisbee, walking your dog, gardening, or something else.
- Get up early: This might seem counterintuitive for helping your loved one get enough sleep, but reminding them to go to bed early and getting up early for an activity can encourage a regular sleep schedule.
5. Encourage Meaningful Impacts
When your friend or family member feels that they make an impact on the world, or that their work has meaning, it’s easier to contradict negative thoughts and feel more positive about the future. One way to help someone with depression is to encourage positive impacts and charity work.
Consider the following ways to make a positive, meaningful impact with your loved one. Many of these activities are small, but remember that you do not have to save the world to make a difference in the lives of others.
- Pick up trash in a park, along sidewalks, or along a walkway
- Give to a food pantry
- Volunteer at a community center
- Help an elderly neighbor or friend
- Volunteer at an animal shelter
- Volunteer in a mentorship program
- Participate in local library programs
- Participate in school programs
- Start a book or social club in your area
6. Suggest Healthy Coping Strategies
People struggling with depression are more likely to take part in self-destructive and dangerous behavior. The most effective treatments for depression focus on reducing harmful behaviors as much as possible, often through coping strategies.
Encouraging and supporting a healthy coping strategy is a great way to help someone with depression. A healthy coping strategy can be any non-harmful activity that distracts from or alleviates negative thoughts. Ideally, coping strategies also contribute to a healthier lifestyle, a creative outlet, or encourage positive feelings in some way. For a coping mechanism to be successful, it’s important to focus on the activity itself, not the outcome or the expectation. It isn’t about doing the activity “the best” or even correctly. The goal is simply to enjoy the activity.
Consider working on any of the following activities with your loved one:
- Art: Drawing, painting, sculpting and other art forms can create a focused “flow state” that can distract from negative thoughts.
- Exercise: While contributing to a healthy lifestyle, focusing on your breathing and your body will help to reduce or interrupt negative thoughts.
- Writing: Fiction, poetry, essays, journaling and other types of writing are useful for relieving stress and expressing negative thoughts safely. However, some writing can encourage rumination and obsession with negative thoughts, so it is important to journal mindfully.
- Cooking: Attention to a recipe and a process takes attention away from negative thoughts. Cooking together with lots of fruits and vegetables can also be a way to support a healthy lifestyle.
- Meditation: Mindful meditation has been shown to reduce symptoms of depression. There are numerous apps, videos, books, and articles available to help you and your loved one get started.
7. Set Boundaries
When a close friend or family member suffers from depression, it’s easy to put their well-being ahead of your own. However, it is important to set boundaries and take time for your own physical and mental health, so you can also support your loved one. One of the best ways to help someone with depression is to also help yourself. Otherwise, it’s easy to become exhausted or frustrated by your loved one’s dark mood. Consider the following, and remember that your well-being is just as important as your loved one’s.
- Set aside time for yourself: Your time is important and your priorities matter. Make it clear that your time to sleep, exercise, eat healthy, socialize, and express yourself are priorities. Tell your loved one when you aren’t available, and suggest another time to meet or talk.
- Be honest about your needs: State your needs clearly, whether that means space to decompress, time to talk about your own concerns, or an apology for something hurtful. Try a simple, clear statement such as “I care about you, and right now this is what I really need/how I feel.”
- Limit your responsibility: Remember that you are not responsible for your loved one’s well-being, nor their harmful or dangerous behaviors. If you are not sure what to do or you are worried about your loved one’s health or safety, tell them, and recommend a counselor, help line, or emergency services.
There are many ways to treat depression, and a close friend or family member plays an important role in many of them. When you are not sure how to help someone with depression, remind yourself that simply listening, and being in that person’s life is already helpful.
If you are seeking counseling for a loved one with depression in the Detroit area, Michigan Counseling Centers can help. Schedule a consultation to learn more about our approach and find out whether we are the right fit for you.