Understanding what depression really is is a huge first step in helping loved ones who are living with it.
But what can you do to support someone who has to handle depression in their lives? How do you let them know that you're there for them - however they need it?
Here's what you should know about how people deal with depression, and how you can support them throughout it all.
1. So how should you react when someone talks about their depression?
Look them in the eyes.
Listen with your full attention.
Don’t pretend to understand if you’ve never experienced it.
Don’t try to fix it or cheer them up.
Say, "I’m so sorry you’re going through this. Can you think of anything I can do to help you?"
Even if they become distant or isolated in the future, keep reaching out to let them know you care.
Don’t try to "guilt" them into communicating or being social.
2. Depression requires self-care.
It’s the catch-22 of depression. You have to care enough about yourself to get help when you don’t think you are worthy of care.
You have to have hope that something can help you, when you don’t have any hope.
You have to have the energy it takes to find the right solution, when you don’t even have enough energy to face breakfast.
3. When you love someone with depression, it can be frustrating.
Saying, "Just talk to a doctor!" to a friend who’s depressed is like saying, "Just look behind you!" to a character in a movie.
What is obvious to you as an audience member is not obvious to someone stuck in the movie of depression.
4. Sometimes the solution is not obvious.
Finding the right medications and the right therapists can take time and patience.
Different classes of antidepressants change the chemicals in your brain differently, and it’s a bit of a guessing game what will work for whom. The "wrong" medication can make depression worse, and even the "right" antidepressant may take several weeks to work and can stop working after some time.
Also, like dating, finding a therapist who’s a good fit can take more than one try.
5. So, why therapy?
The right antidepressant can certainly help, but it’s not magic. It can’t change years of negative thought patterns or suddenly give you tremendous self-esteem.
My friend Sally told me that therapy gives her perspective. She can recognize negative thoughts as a symptom of her depression and not as her.
6. The first step is the hardest.
Do any leg-work you can to ease your loved one’s first step toward help. Offer to call her insurance company to see what therapy is covered, make a doctor’s appointment, or get therapist recommendations.
7. You can’t make someone get help.
Even if you do the leg-work, you can’t make someone see a doctor, take medication, or go to therapy.
But you can do all of those things for yourself. Seeing someone you love suffer from anxiety and depression can cause anxiety and depression. Take care of yourself the way you want your loved one to take care of herself.
8. Depression is not selfish.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among 15- to 34-year-olds.
Several friends have told me that in the darkest moments of their depression (before they were on medications or sought help) they thought, "If I were gone, my family would be sad for a little while. But in the long run, they’d be so much happier and less stressed because they wouldn't have to deal with me. I'd actually be helping them."
It’s hard to imagine and it’s heartbreaking to think that someone you love would ever think that way, but that’s the power of depression.
9. Depression is especially hard on women.
Women are more likely to suffer from depression than men, and they have incredibly tough choices to face while pregnant and breastfeeding. Plus postpartum depression occurs in about 15% of births.
Sally got conflicting advice from different doctors regarding taking her medications during pregnancy and breastfeeding. In the end, she had to do her own research and make her own decisions.
10. You can never really know what it’s like until you’ve been there.
Recently, Sally helped a family member through his first dealings with depression. Though he has always been supportive of her, he said, "I had no idea that this is what it feels like for you. I’m so sorry."
Sally has been a guide for many who are experiencing depression for the first time. Sometimes she recognizes the symptoms in other people before they even see it in themselves.
It has occurred to her that perhaps depression is her burden because it is her purpose. She knows the beast and she knows how to survive it. Though she mostly keeps her story to herself, she has an uncanny ability to know when someone needs to hear it.
Her honesty changes people’s lives. It’s certainly changed mine.
And, Sally, you can still make me laugh harder than just about anyone else I know.
To all my loved ones who are living with depression, thank you for taking that first step and the next and the next. Your strength is beyond measure.
Image: Kristina Alexanderson