Observing your loved one or friend deal with depression can make one feel helpless. A recent 2020 study conducted by Catherine K. Ettman, et. al. for the JAMA Network found that depression has more than tripled in U.S. adults since COVID-19 began, with an estimated one out of four experiencing symptoms. As devastating as that may be, there are steps one can take to aid a loved one or friend living with depression.
“When someone is feeling depressed, they are in a vulnerable place and are likely engaging in [sometimes cyclical] negative thoughts about themselves, their lives, and the future,” Dr. Liana Georgoulis, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and Founder of Coast Psychological Services in Los Angeles, communicates to TZR. Trauma, stress, genetics, health, sudden life changes, existentialism, grief and loss, and abuse, are some of the many reasons clinical depression might be experienced, and how that is expressed varies from person to person. Some may be vocal in their distress through emotional signs such as excessive crying or extreme irritability over seemingly minor things, while others may be reticent in displaying their symptoms. This issue doesn’t discriminate and can affect even the most successful people.
“There are a number of people suffering from depression who appear very functional, i.e., going to work, engaging in social events, and appearing to have a full range of emotions,” shares Dr. Shané Teran, a Los Angeles based OD Psychologist and Licensed Psychotherapist, in an email to TZR. “However, there will always be a transitional period in which the person becomes more withdrawn or less engaged in [their] usual social and day to day situations. The key is knowing what is typical for them.”
“Being attuned to changes you may notice [in your loved one] is helpful,” Dr. Ayanna Abrams adds, Psy.D., Licensed Clinical Psychologist and owner of Ascension Behavioral Health in Atlanta, GA. “They may become less engaged or talkative or mention feeling hopeless. There may be a physical change in sleep or appetite patterns. They might talk a lot about specific stressors or even make passive or active statements about suicide and/or wishing they were gone.” Dr. Georgoulis adds to look out for telltale statements such as, ‘what’s the point,’ ‘things are never going to change,’ or ‘I don’t enjoy anything or feel like doing anything anymore.’ With suicidal ideation, it is imperative for your loved one to have a plan and to call for professional help immediately. You can refer to this suicide prevention guide on telltale signs and actionable steps to take, provided by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Experiencing depression can last anywhere between a brief moment in time to an ongoing, lifelong battle and spans a variety of subsets and types, including Major Depressive Disorder, Persistent Depressive Disorder, Seasonal Depression, Bipolar Disorder, Postpartum Depression, and Psychotic Depression. It can feel like your friend or loved one’s whole world is crumbling down while hurting, but thankfully there are ways you can help to make them feel less alone. Ahead, mental health experts share tips on how to give a helping hand to your friend or loved one going through depression.
Nix The Judgement & Fix-It Mode
No matter how well-intentioned, people can offend those experiencing a depressive episode with insensitive or thoughtless advice. “Oftentimes, because of our own anxieties and distress, we go into ‘fix it’ mode when we know someone else is in distress, and we try to remove or eliminate what we see as the ‘problem,’” Abrams explains. “Because this becomes our focus and not our loved one’s needs right in that moment, we can really miss connecting emotionally with them and being present, which is often remarkably soothing.” This may come out in the form of giving instructions or trying to convince your loved one of friend to ‘snap out of it’ or do something active. Instead of doling out solutions they may not want, offer comfort and ask how you can be of support.
Dr. Abrams says to focus on what your friend or loved one actually needs and not the story you conjured of what they need. “We tend to ‘feel’ helpful based on our intentions, so we assume that we are helping them; however, only your loved one can decide what is helpful to them in the moment. Try your best not to tell them what they should do or what they need to do; this can push people to become defensive because they feel undermined and not trusted.”
Also, don’t marginalize how your friend or loved one may be feeling or experiencing as that may further exacerbate their pain. “The most important thing is to avoid sounding judgmental or critical,” Dr. Georgoulis expresses. “Don’t shame someone and make them feel like their experience is bad or abnormal or even worse, that they are bad or abnormal. Refrain from giving [unsolicited] advice. If people feel like they are given it before being heard and understood, they will feel dismissed. Discounting the person’s experience by minimizing or ignoring their struggles or telling them to get over it is also dismissive and shows a lack of care and support.”
“Oftentimes, because of our own anxieties and distress, we go into ‘fix it’ mode when we know someone else is in distress, and we try to remove or eliminate what we see as the ‘problem.’”
There’s a fine line between encouragement and pushing your friend or loved one to do things they may not want to do. “Don’t overload someone to engage in activities that may ‘help them get out of the funk,’” Dr. Teran posits. Yet while not overstepping with activities, it’s meaningful to still let them know that they’re included and invited, even if they decline.
Stay away from invalidating phrases and comparing feelings to others, as it can be harmful and often gaslights your loved one or friend’s experience and their feelings. “Avoid telling someone phrases such as, ‘shake it off,’ ‘just push yourself to get up,’ ‘maybe you just need to get over it by going out,’ ‘you don’t look depressed,’ and/or ‘you’re always so negative,’” says Teran. It may make them feel worse, unsafe, alone, and push them further away from wanting to seek help and get better. “Each person’s experience is different. Be open to other’s experiences and try to be empathetic to the ways in which we try to survive this crazy place.”
Listening helps your loved one and/or friend feel safe and supported. “Thank them for sharing this piece of themselves with you because you know that may be hard,” Dr. Abrams states. “Verbally appreciate their vulnerability and ask them if it would be helpful for you to listen and share space with them. Send them something nice or talk through what they are experiencing. Be sure to ask them ways in which you can be helpful. These responses are much more inviting and gives your friend a choice in what they receive from you.” Dr. Georgoulis agrees and encourages to, “Remind your friend of their wonderful qualities, why you appreciate them, and perhaps of previous times in their lives that were difficult in which they overcame.”
Some may pretend everything is fine and may not be as explicit with their signs, so reaching out is a solid way to address your friend or loved one’s needs. “Ask, ‘how does depression show up for you?,’” Teran says. “Oftentimes, we assume or Google search the symptoms of depression and miss the opportunity to know the ways that it may differ depending on the person, which will also allow them the opportunity to share and explore ways that they feel most supported and/or in need of space to use coping skills to manage symptoms.” With permission, one can encourage their friend or loved one towards solutions.
For marginalized groups, such as Black and BIPOC individuals, LGBTQIA+, and disabled, what you say (and don’t say) are crucial. “Avoid language that generalizes their experiences, don’t make assumptions about them or their lives, or try to over identify with their issues. It may make it difficult for people who have been marginalized to feel heard or understood,” Dr. Abrams stresses. “You may consider yourself an ally, but appointing yourself one is more about you, and not about your loved one, what they need and how they view you.
Asking about what they need or don't need from you is a way to amplify [your loved one’s] voice. Being direct and not making assumptions is a useful communication skill. Using similar supportive strategies of listening, empathizing, and conveying that you believe what they are saying and feeling is also key for people who have historically felt ignored and devalued.”
Know Thy Boundaries (Both Theirs & Your Own)
Helping a friend or loved one may push them away, even with the best of intentions. “This can be a common response when someone is in denial about their depressive symptoms, doesn’t feel safe enough to be vulnerable because society still has a negative stigma associated with depression, feels scared about what this means for them, or isn’t ready to make a change to help themselves yet,” Dr. Abrams tells TZR. “If your friend becomes defensive or asks you to back off, it’s important that you listen to them, and ask them what you CAN do to support.”
This means establishing and communicating clear boundaries. “Add in a verbal agreement regarding the recurrence of check-ins to avoid any near misses with the typical ‘I’m ok’ or ‘I’m fine,’ Teran adds. “So don’t become a burden, but remain engaged.”
“You may consider yourself an ally, but appointing yourself one is more about you, and not about your loved one, what they need and how they view you.”
As gracious and kind as it is to want to place your needs in favor of your loved one or friend’s, it’s paramount to take care of yourself first. “If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed, undone, or frenzied in trying to help, that can be your body's way of telling you to take a break, because you are emotionally unregulated and need a better strategy of how to be there for someone else AND be there for yourself,” Abrams says. “You also matter, and it’s important that you are managing your own health and not only focus on someone else’s.”
Ultimately, you can (and should) only control yourself and your outcomes. “While we can certainly support and positively influence those we care about, we are ultimately not in control of the decisions other people make,” Georgoulis conveys. “If you find yourself working harder to help someone’s depression than they themselves are, you may want to consider pulling back a bit. If you find that you are feeling overwhelmed or resentful or that your happiness is contingent upon the other person making changes, then it might be a sign to step back.”
Educational Resources For Both You And Your Loved Ones
All experts agree that sharing viable resources with your loved one and educating yourself is key to through this process. “Consider helping them look for mental health support,” says Georgoulis. “This can be particularly helpful as this process can be daunting when someone is feeling depressed. This should be done with their permission, of course.”