Depression is an invisible illness that develops slowly and stealthily. Often the person suffering from it is unaware of what is happening to them.
It is friends and family who may first notice something is wrong, signs that the person they love has changed, perhaps a marked difference in appetite, uncharacteristic lethargy, or loss of concentration.
They want to help, but they don’t know how. Most of us look on, filled with mixed emotions of frustration, anger, guilt and sadness. We want to help, but we don’t know how.
How do you help someone with depression if you are not a professional?
We need practical tips on how we can help.
1. Understand their depression.
Start by understanding your loved one’s struggle. Research all you can about depression and how to talk about it.
Understand they have a serious illness that needs treatment. Telling them to ‘get over it’ or ‘get a grip’ doesn’t help.
Realise that if they lash out at you, saying hurtful things, this is not them talking, it’s the depression. Don’t take it personally. The laziness, negativity and lack of motivation they display? Again, that’s the depression at work.
You aren’t to blame for their problems and you can’t ‘fix’ them. Only they can do that. All you can do is support them.
Read personal stories of those who have experienced depression themselves, and how they dealt with it.
The more you can find out, the easier it will be to help them. But once you understand their depression, then what?
2. Develop some key skills.
You want to help your loved one with their depression, but you don’t want to say or do the wrong thing. There are some key skills that you may be blessed with, or you need to learn:
- Be a good listener. Let them do the talking, and in their own time.
- Learn the art of patience. You won’t get the full picture in one conversation, but slowly, over time. Getting frustrated at their speed of recovery is not going to help. Medications and therapies that work for one person may not suit another. There is no quick fix.
- Be gentle, persistent and compassionate, not judgemental, and you will gradually gain their confidence.
- Be positive. When you do the talking, use language that encourages and offers hope: that you are there to help them with their depression; things will change; they are important.
With this toolkit, you can then take the next step.
3. Encourage them to reach out.
This won’t be easy. What to you may seem straightforward may not be to someone in a depressed state. When they are anxious, tired and unmotivated, making simple decisions seems daunting, and acting upon them pointless.
If they haven’t acknowledged their depression, suggesting they visit a mental health professional may trigger anxiety. They might listen to their general practitioner (GP), though, and accept a diagnosis of depression.
They might then be willing to consider treatment for their depression.
Offer to help them find the right practitioner and treatment. The options, including cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), can seem daunting.
Almost as daunting as the first visit. You could help here too, by offering to help compile a list of their ailments and perhaps suggesting that you accompany them that first time, an offer that may be gratefully accepted.
Once diagnosed, your loved one can then start a programme of treatment.
4. Help them with their treatment.
They are going to need all your compassion and support, your patience and understanding – but take care you don’t confuse helping someone coping with depression with taking over their life because you think they can’t manage.
Let all decisions come from them. They will need your help, and this can be in a number of practical ways:
- Offer to be there when they need you. Make suggestions where appropriate.
- Help them arrange and keep appointments, stick to any schedules of prescribed treatments.
- Help them find a household routine. If someone is depressed the simplest chores can be overwhelming.
- Be a good role model. If you eat healthily and exercise regularly, this may encourage them to follow your example. It can be as simple as walking in the park or around the block. This will help to re-energise them – rather than drain their energy. But let them make the first move.
- Gently encourage them back into a social life – perhaps a meal out or a trip to the cinema.
- Keep in touch – there is no substitute for in-person contact but you cannot be there all the time. Making the occasional phone call or sending the odd text may be the boost they need at a particular moment.
Finally, because you also have a life to lead, and your own health matters…
5. Look after yourself.
Helping someone cope with their depression can be intense and it is very easy, without realising it, to overdo it. You need to help yourself as much as the person you are helping.
You need to set yourself boundaries. Mark out time when you are there for them, and other times when your own social life takes precedence.
Be honest with them. If their actions and words upset you, and you let this resentment grow over time without saying anything, they will start to notice and feel more anxious.
You don’t need to do this alone. Share the caring with family and friends. Join a carers support group and share your experiences and challenges.
There is no quick fix to help someone with depression, but through learning more and understanding what it is you and your friend or loved one are dealing with, you will have taken the first step in helping them.
By being there for them, drawing alongside, listening and encouraging them to take just one small step at a time, you will be helping them find their way to recovery.
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