One of my best friends, Sally, is hilarious, hard working, and takes care of everyone in her circle. She has so much going for her and she suffers from depression.
I could describe another one of my closest friends the same way, and another one, and another one.
It’s estimated that 350 million people in the world experience depression at some point in their life, and less than half will get help for it.
You have approximately a 17% chance of suffering from depression at some point in your life. About 2 in 100 children and 8 in 100 teens fight depression.
There is a very good chance that you love someone who had, has, or will have depression.
Sally rarely talks about her depression except when she feels someone can benefit from her experiences. I want to thank her for talking so openly to me about living with this illness and what she has learned along the way.
Here’s what you need to know if you love someone who has depression.
1. There are degrees of depressed.
We all say, "I’m depressed." We’re depressed because our team lost the game and we’re depressed when we’re suffering from major depressive disorder.
It’s like the difference in how we love pizza and how we love our children – same word, very different intensity.
In this article, when we say "depression" we’re referring to major depressive disorder.
2. Sometimes we don’t see depression for what it is.
"She’s just so negative all the time."
"Every little thing is such a big deal to him."
"She never even wants to leave the house."
We say these things thinking that we’re describing our friend’s quirky personality traits but we may actually be describing our friend’s depression symptoms.
3. Some people function with depression.
Your wife is able to work, get the kids to school and run the book committee for the PTA. So she can’t be depressed, right?
I have friends who are the life of the party and have depression. I have friends who are fantastic, very involved parents and have depression. I have friends who are amazing at their jobs and have depression.
And unless they told you that they have depression, you would never know.
4. Functioning with depression is exhausting.
Imagine having the flu and having to work. Your head is under pressure, your body aches, and all you want to do is sleep, but you have to meet new clients while pretending that you feel fine.
Those with depression experience something akin to that every day.
5. Everyone has a breaking point.
Depression is the number one cause of disability worldwide.
Think of the flu example above. You might be able to get through a day or two of working while you’re really sick, but eventually your body gives out and you have to get help from a doctor and rest.
6. You don’t have to get to the breaking point.
There is help out there. You can get it before you hit rock bottom so you never have to hit rock bottom.
7. Depression is not personality.
It’s confusing that we say, "Amy is depressed," instead of, "Amy has depression."
We wouldn’t say, "Amy is heart disease," because we understand that Amy is the person, not the illness that affects her.
8. Depression is not a character flaw.
Depression is not something a person can change by trying harder.
Sally says she has struggled her whole life to understand why she "can’t just handle life the way other people can." Even as a child, things affected her more than the people around her. She felt it was her fault and that she was weak.
Her psychiatrist helped her with this perspective. "If I took your chemistry and injected it into someone else, that person would feel the way you do. Think of depression like diabetes. Just like we treat diabetes with insulin, we treat depression with medication."
You don’t expect a diabetic to correct her insulin level by trying harder.
9. Depression is more than intense sadness.
It’s also guilt, anxiety, indifference, low self-esteem, exhaustion, isolation, inability to focus, and pain. It manifests differently in different people, and the complexity of the symptoms sometimes makes it hard to recognize depression (here’s a quiz).
Just because your loved one doesn’t cry all the time, doesn’t mean he/she is not depressed.
10. Depression doesn’t always have a trigger.
Depression is caused by changes in brain chemistry. Sometimes it’s obvious that stress has triggered your brain chemistry to change (like a death in the family or the loss of a job), and sometimes there is no trigger.
11. Depression isn’t an illness you get over and never have to deal with again.
For many people, depression can be chronic or recurring.
Even though she’s experienced it many times, Sally says she still doesn’t always recognize when she’s "sinking into another episode."
"I will feel in crisis about something, or I'll be angry and irritable, or I'll feel like I'm lost and alone – no longer able to manage my life. My therapist will remind me that this is my depression. Each time I'm surprised and relieved."
12. There’s a reason people don’t talk about depression and it’s not just the stigma.
Sally told me that she doesn’t tell most peripheral friends or co-workers about her depression because she doesn’t want to be thought of as "a depressed person".
But she’s also learned to be very careful about sharing her struggles with depression even with close friends or family. The way people react can be very painful.
Sally’s received responses like:
"Everyone needs a good cry sometimes."
"Just smile. Choose happiness."
"Be grateful for all you have. Don’t you see how fortunate you are?"
Depression is a force outside of our control that wreaks havoc on our minds and bodies – just like any other ailment. Imagine saying the above to a friend with cancer:
"Everyone gets sick sometimes."
"Just choose to be healthy."
"But you have a great job and you’re successful. Why can’t you focus on that instead of your cancer?"
13. Even some people in the medical profession don’t get it.
Sally once had a general physician say, "Have you tried watching funny movies? That always cheers me up."
It’s hard to imagine that response from someone who should know better, but several of my friends have had similar reactions from medical professionals.
Depression is not a choice. It can’t be turned off by watching funny movies or looking on the bright side.
It’s hard for those who have never experienced it to truly understand it, but we can still support our loved ones by educating ourselves on how depression works.
For ideas on how to help those you love who are depressed and for more of Sally’s experience, click here.