Depression is an absolute horror of an illness. 1 in 4 of you will know that first hand. I want to talk about it. A lot.
It’s terribly sad to read the stories of sufferers on blogs and social media; although it is encouraging that people feel they can safely share these stories to reach out for themselves, and to help others.
I know that it’s also incredibly difficult to watch someone you care about struggle, and fight, and give in, and come back with depression on a daily basis. We all need a support network from time to time, to help us through the difficulties that life can bring; however, that is especially true of someone with a depressive illness. But, how do you actually go about creating that supportive atmosphere for someone?
It can be difficult to know what to do for the best.
Therefore, I’ve compiled a few things I’ve learned about trying to help someone with depression, in the hope that it might help some of you, too.
Listen. It can be really difficult for people to talk about their feelings so, when they do, make sure you just sit and listen. Try to actually imagine yourself feeling that way, and throw all the empathy you have at the situation. Forget about what you want to say and literally. Just. Listen. Talking about your own experiences might help people to understand that they aren’t alone; however, some people can find it condescending.
Hug. Or hold hands, just general touch can be incredibly comforting and a lot can be conveyed through touch that can’t be expressed verbally. Think about how secure you feel when someone you love (parent/child?) gives you a big squeeze. That’s what you’re going for.
Eye contact. Try to be sensitive and pick up on when it’s appropriate to make and break eye contact. Steady eye contact can be a good way to let someone know that you’re listening and present, but can also make people feel as though they’re being scrutinised.
Space. If you are really concerned about someone, it can be difficult, even dangerous, to leave them alone. On a low day, though, some sufferers will feel overwhelmed without their own space. They may want to take themselves off into another room, so maybe just check up now and again because it can be difficult for someone to break their own isolation once they’re in there.
Comfort. Whatever that might look like to that person. Some people feel comforted by a cup of tea, or a duvet day on the sofa watching old movies. Of course, I’m not for a second suggesting that these things can help the causes and triggers of depression, but making sure someone’s physical surroundings are comfortable for them can have a small positive impact on their mental state
Safety. This can be particularly important if someone suffers with anxious symptoms along with their depressive illness. Ultimately, to help someone with depression, you need to have a trusting relationship, and making someone feel safe is a big part of that. I mean that both literally (e.g. we’re in a safe space in the house as opposed to a busy city centre), and figuratively (e.g. you’re safe to discuss this with me)
Encouragement. I would say gentle encouragement might help a lot of people. I’ve often found breaking down tasks into smaller pieces and offering encouragement along the way can help. A bad day for depression can be made worse if the person doesn’t feel they’ve done anything with their time; although, sometimes a day like that is needed.
Don’t take it personally. There may be snappy comments or complete withdrawal. It is unlikely to be anything to do with you. This is a person who is suffering, and it is not about you.
What do you need? Sometimes there won’t be an obvious answer to this but, if they can tell you what they need, try and make it so. It might be something as simple as a walk around the block, it might be to help them solve a difficult problem at work.
Hobbies. Often people struggling with depression experience lack of interest in things they normally enjoy. However, sometimes getting involved in something can be helpfully distracting. An example from my experience would be someone that finds most of their past incredibly difficult to think about, but has a huge passion for the music of their youth. On a low day, I might bring up the topic of favourite bands and ask questions about favourite gigs etc. I might get a grunting response to begin with but then we might end up playing some records or comparing playlists. The person can sometimes come out of the dark cloud for a few hours
Talk about depression. Talking openly about depression, as you would a physical injury or illness, helps reduced that stigma. Talk about symptoms and treatment and what works and what doesn’t. Talk about what can be done, on an individual and/or population level, to improve things for people. It kind of goes without saying that you shouldn’t force this topic, but do join in if it’s brought up in conversation.
Avoid judgmental language. I mean, this would be great in general conversation, anyway. The last thing anyone with depression needs is to feel as though they’re being judged for the way they feel. Often, that person is being so hard on themselves anyway. It can be helpful to actually try and validate someone’s feelings by saying ‘yes, I understand, it’s ok to feel this way’
Avoid imperatives. Steer clear of ‘you must’ and ‘you should’. Again, that can make people feel judged
Reminisce. Often people with depression can really struggle to discuss the past. However, if you have some positive shared memories, it can be a nice thing to discuss. The idea is to just get chatting until an interest is sparked.
Basic care. If you’ve ever had experience with mental ill-health, you’ll know that you often can’t face making yourself a meal, or taking a shower, or anything like that. It can feel a little harsh, but you need to make sure that the person is at least eating enough to fuel themselves for the day. We need nourishment for good physical and mental health.
Be normal. I’ve heard a campaign on the radio recently about men looking after their mates suffering from depression, and the biggest thing is to continue to be normal. If you normally watch the match together on a Saturday, then do that. Don’t walk on eggshells around the person, don’t show up with your sympathetic face on, just be there if they need you, but try and keep things regular for them
Now then, a huge disclaimer-type paragraph. I am not for a minute suggesting that this will ‘cure’ anyone’s depression. I’m also well aware that everyone is different, everyone’s relationships function differently, and everyone experiences mental health differently. I’m simply sharing what I’ve learned from my own experience, personal and professional. Of course, all of this depends on so many factors that it’s impossible to say how a person will respond to any attempts to support them to feel better. You really need to use your own judgement based on how well you know a person. It also goes without saying that this is not, in any way, a substitute for professional medical advice. I really hope this hasn’t come across as detached or judge-y, because the intention is the complete opposite.
I’d love to hear from you if you think any of this would be useful. Or, if you have anything to add. Let me know in the comments below, or email me if you prefer.
If you, or anyone you know, are struggling with depression, you can find some more information on ways to get help in the following places:
Mind – pages on depression
Moodjuice – a self-help guide
Samaritans – how we can help you