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Helping a Depressed Person

If someone you love has depression, you may wonder if there is anything you can do to help. The simple answer is yes. Your support and encouragement can play a major role in a loved one?s recovery from depression. Yet taking care of yourself is equally important. Depression affects more than just the person struggling with it. It will take a toll on your well-being if you let it. And if it does, you won?t be in a position to help your friend or family member. With the following guidelines, however, you can learn how to help a depressed person while maintaining your own health and happiness.

Depression: Signs & Symptoms

In This Article:
Helping a depressed friend or family member
Encouraging a depressed person to get treatment
Supporting a loved one during treatment
What to do when depression gets worse
Taking care of yourself
When your spouse or partner is depressed
Helping the child of a depressed parent
References and resources

Depression in the Home: One Couple's Story

Marie is at her wits end. Her husband Ryan lost his job a year ago and has become increasingly withdrawn, angry, and despondent. Marie misses her formerly fun-loving, goofy husband, and she doesn't know what to do to make him better. He refuses to talk to her about his deteriorating condition, and insists there's nothing wrong. In fact, he becomes rather combative when she suggests that he may need help. Meanwhile, Marie is working full time to support them both, and coming home to a house where she not only has to cook, clean, and pay the bills, but also needs to walk on eggshells so she won't upset Ryan. She feels she can't tell her friends and coworkers about her problems because it would be "betraying" Ryan in some way. He seems to resent that she is away from home for such long hours, so she comes straight home after work, skipping the gym and coffee dates with her girlfriends that she enjoys so much. And when she gets there, he just sits in front of the television and won't talk to her. She is getting more and more lonely, overworked, and stressed.

Living with a depressed person can be challenging, and you may feel any number of troubling emotions while they are struggling with depression. It?s perfectly normal to feel overwhelmed, confused, or even angry.

There?s a natural impulse to want to fix what is wrong with someone you love, but another person?s depression is neither your fault, nor something you have control over fixing. However, you do have control over how well you take care of yourself. The better you feel, the better you can provide the support, love, and understanding your depressed loved one needs.

Helping a depressed friend or family member

If someone close to you has depression, remember the advice of airline flight attendants: put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help another. In other words, make sure your own health and happiness are solid before you try to help someone else beat depression. You won?t do your loved one any good if you collapse under the pressure of trying to help. Taking care of yourself when someone close to you is depressed is not an act of selfishness, for it allows you to continue to love and care for the other person.

In addition to looking out for your own needs, there are two main ways you can help friends or relatives who are depressed: provide emotional support and help them get the treatment they need. Sounds simple, but as anyone who has been in your situation can tell you, nothing is simple when dealing with depression. The following basic guidelines, however, will help keep you on course as you support your loved one through depression treatment and recovery from depression.

Top Tips for Helping a Depressed Friend or Relative
  • Learn about depression. Educate yourself about the symptoms, causes, and treatments of depression. You need to understand what you?re dealing with before you can help.
  • Be understanding. Don?t underestimate the seriousness of depression. Depression drains a person?s energy, optimism, and motivation. Your depressed loved one can?t just ?snap out of it? by sheer force of will.
  • Try not to take it personally. Irritability and hostility are common symptoms of depression. Often, a depressed person will say hurtful things or lash out in anger. Remember that this is the depression talking, not your loved one, so don?t take it to heart.
  • Have realistic expectations. It can be frustrating to watch a depressed loved one struggle, especially if progress is slow or stalled. Having patience is important. Even with the proper treatment, recovery from depression doesn?t happen overnight.
  • Don?t be an enabler. It doesn?t help anyone involved if you are making excuses, covering up the problem, or lying for a friend or family member who is depressed. In fact, this may keep the depressed person from seeking treatment.
  • Relinquish your control. Don?t try to rescue your loved one from depression. It?s not up to you to fix the problem, nor can you. Ultimately, depression recovery is in the hands of the depressed person.
The most important thing you can do to help a friend or relative with depression is to give your unconditional love and support. This involves being compassionate and patient?which is not always easy when dealing with the negativity, hostility, and moodiness that go hand in hand with depression. Being supportive involves offering encouragement and hope. Very often, this is a matter of talking to the person in language that a depressed mind will understand.

Some supportive, positive things to say to a depressed friend or family member:
  • ?I love you no matter what you say or do.?
  • ?Don?t ever think you are alone in this or anything you go through.?
  • ?Please tell me what I can do to help you right now.?
  • ?I know I can?t understand what you are going though, but I am here for you if you want to talk.?
  • ?I can?t imagine how hard this all must be.
  • ?You are so important to me.?
  • ?We can get through this. There are people out there who can help.?
  • ?You won?t feel this way forever ? we will find a way to help you feel better.?
What Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Sometimes, it?s more important to know what NOT to say to someone living with depression. According to the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, you should avoid saying things like:
  • It?s all in your head.
  • We all go through times like these.
  • You?ll be fine. Stop worrying.
  • Look on the bright side.
  • You have so much to live for; why do you want to die?
  • I can?t do anything about your situation.
  • Just snap out of it.
  • Stop acting crazy.
  • What?s wrong with you?
  • Shouldn?t you be better by now?

Encouraging a depressed person to get treatment

Family and friends are often the first line of defense in the fight against depression. Those closest to a depressed person may notice symptoms before the depressed individual does, and their influence and concern can motivate the depressed person to seek help. But getting a depressed person into treatment is not always easy.

The very nature of depression makes it extremely difficult for those suffering from it to seek help. Depression saps energy and motivation, making even the smallest decisions or actions seem daunting. Depression involves negative ways of thinking that make the situation seem hopeless. Sometimes, people can live with what is called ?low-grade? depression for a long time without it interrupting their lives in obvious ways. This can be tricky for the people who love them, as it is harder to convince someone that they need help if they are going to work and keeping up with responsibilities. Because of these obstacles, getting your loved one to admit that there is a problem - and helping him or her see that the problem can be solved ? is the first important step in depression recovery.

If your friend or family member is resistant to the idea of seeking diagnosis and treatment for depression, take a different tack. Rather than pushing your loved one to see a mental health professional, suggest a general check-up with a physician. This is actually a great option for two reasons: first, what appears to be depression can actually have a medical cause, which a doctor can rule out; second, your loved one may be less anxious about seeing a regular doctor than a psychiatrist or psychologist. If the doctor confirms the depression diagnosis, he or she can urge your loved one to get help. Sometimes, a ?professional? opinion makes all the difference to a depressed person in denial or opposed to treatment. Some additional ways you can help a friend or family member make the diagnosis and treatment leap:
  • Offer to go with your loved one to the family physician or to help find a new doctor or therapist. Finding the right treatment provider can be difficult, and is often a trial-and-error process. For a depressed person already low on energy, it is a huge help to have assistance making calls and looking into the options.
  • Encourage your loved one to make a thorough list of symptoms and ailments to discuss with the doctor. You can even bring up things that you have noticed as an outside observer, such as, ?You seem to feel much worse in the mornings,? or ?You always get stomach pains before work.?
  • Make sure the doctor does a thorough batch of tests to rule out conditions that can cause depression-like symptoms. If there is no medical cause found for the depression, the doctor should be able to refer your loved one to a mental health specialist, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist, for treatment.
Supporting a loved one during treatment

Once your friend or family member has acknowledged his or her depression and has agreed to seek help, you can continue your support by approaching the treatment as a team effort. Offer to be involved in any way or to any degree that your loved one wants and is comfortable with. Your support and outside perspective can be invaluable, but remember that this is your loved one?s personal journey. You are not, nor should you be, in the driver?s seat. What your friend or relative needs and wants from you are what matters.

Supporting a Depressed Person During Treatment
  • Provide whatever assistance they need (and are willing to accept). Help them make and keep appointments, research treatment options, and stay on schedule with any treatment protocols.
  • Lead by example. Encourage your loved one to lead a healthier lifestyle by doing it yourself ? eat better, avoid alcohol and drugs, and exercise.
  • Encourage activity. Join your loved one in activities that can help brighten moods ? short walks, a funny movie, dinner at a favorite restaurant.
  • Pitch in when possible. Seemingly small tasks can be hard for a depressed person to manage. Offer to help out with household responsibilities or chores ? but only do what you can without getting burned out yourself!
  • Believe, believe, and believe. Believe in your loved one?s power and ability to get well, no matter how difficult the path may be. Your belief will fuel him or her on the bumpy road to recovery.
If your friend or family is open to it, start by helping him or her develop a plan of action for feeling better, complete with a personalized arsenal of mood boosting tools. You can also monitor the impact of treatment, making sure your loved one is staying on course and that treatment is helping. One method for tracking treatment progress is to keep a mood chart, or log of the depressed person?s moods and what seems to affect them - both negatively and positively. It?s also important to be aware of the potential side effects of any antidepressant medications your loved one is taking.

Learn more about tools for Depression Self-Help and Recovery

What to do when depression gets worse

Despite everyone?s best intentions and efforts, depression can get worse or reappear. It doesn?t matter if someone is currently in treatment, already recovered, or has been living and functioning with minor depression for years. Things can get bad very quickly, so any increase in depression symptoms should be taken seriously. If ignored, the consequences can be dangerous, even deadly. But if a depression relapse is caught early, the harmful impact can be reduced.

Watching for warning signs

If you are in close daily contact or living with a depressed person, you are in an excellent position to observe and detect a downturn. To prepare, talk with your loved one about how to spot and prevent a worsening depression. Make a list of warning signs and triggers (things that have set off a depression in the past) that might mean a depressive episode is on the way. Discuss what your friend or family member would like you to do if you spot them.

Preventing suicide

It may be hard to believe that the person you know and love would ever consider something as drastic as suicide, but a depressed person may not see any other way out. Depression clouds judgment and distorts thinking, and can make a normally rational person believe that death is the only release from the pain he or she is feeling. Suicide is a very real danger in depression, so it?s important to know the warning signs.

Suicide Warning Signs
  • Talking about suicide, dying, or harming oneself.
  • Preoccupation with death.
  • Seeking out pills, weapons, or other lethal objects.
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness or self-loathing.
  • Getting affairs in order and saying goodbye.
  • Acting in dangerous or self-destructive ways.
  • Sudden sense of calm after a depression.
If you think a friend or friend member might be considering suicide, talk to them about your concerns. While you may feel uncomfortable bringing up the topic, it is one of the most helpful things you can do for a suicidal person. The next step is to seek out professional help. If you believe your loved one is at an immediate risk for suicide, do not leave the person alone. Dial 911 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Learn more about Helping a Suicidal Person.

Taking care of yourself

Meeting your own needs while living or dealing with a depressed person can be a confusing and emotional experience. Deep down, you may fear that you are somehow to blame for your loved one?s depression, and feel responsible for his or her happiness (or lack thereof). You may feel that it?s up to you fix things, focusing all your energy on helping the depressed person get better, even at the expense of your own happiness.

You need to understand that another person?s depression is not your fault or your responsibility. You can?t do the work of recovery for your friend or relative, so running yourself ragged won?t help matters. Neither will letting your loved one?s depression drag you down. It is just as important for you to stay healthy as it is for the depressed individual to get treatment, so make your own well-being a priority. When your own needs are being tended to, you?ll be in a solid place to help others.

Key ways to look after your needs while living with a depressed person:

Speak up for yourself. You may be hesitant to speak out when a depressed loved one upsets you or lets you down. However, communicating your basic needs will actually help your friend or family member in the long run. If you are suffering in silence and letting resentment build, the depressed person will pick up on these negative emotions and feel like even more of a failure. Gently let him or her know how you are feeling before pent-up emotions make it too hard to communicate with sensitivity.

Set boundaries. Of course you want to help, but you can only do so much. If you let your life be controlled by your loved one?s depression, your own well-being will suffer. You can?t be a caretaker round the clock without paying a psychological price. To avoid burnout and resentment, set clear limits on what you are willing and able to do. You are not your love one?s therapist, so don?t take on that responsibility. Most importantly, schedule time for yourself to relax and recharge.

Stay on track with your own life. While some changes in your daily routine may be unavoidable while caring for your friend or relative, do your best to keep appointments and plans with friends. If your depressed loved one is unable to go on an outing or trip you had planned, ask a friend to join you instead. And don?t neglect your own health ? it?s important to keep your strength up, so eat right, exercise, and find ways to relieve stress. Think of this challenging time like a marathon; you need extra sustenance to keep yourself going.

Seek support. You are NOT betraying your depressed relative or friend by turning to an outside support system. By joining a support group, talking to a counselor or clergyman, or even confiding in a trusted friend, you will be able to vent your emotions and get a better handle on the situation. You don?t need to go into detail about your loved one?s depression or betray confidences; instead focus on your emotions and what you are going through. Make sure you can be totally honest with the person you turn to ? no judging your emotions!

When your spouse or partner is depressed

If the depressed loved one in your life is a spouse or romantic partner, there are a whole slew of additional issues that arise. Marriage is supposed to be a balanced partnership, but depression throws that balance completely out of whack. The depressed partner may be unable to fulfill both mundane responsibilities and the deeper emotional commitments that are the foundation of the relationship. Depression makes it difficult for a person to connect on a deep emotional level with anyone ? even with the person he or she loves the most. To make matters worse, the sexual side effects of depression, and the antidepressant medications used to treat it, can further erode intimacy.

As the spouse or partner of a depressed individual, it?s easy to feel lonely, rejected, or unloved. Getting your partner into depression treatment is a step in the right direction. But in order to keep the relationship strong during the long recovery process, you may want to consider couples therapy. You can also use this time to learn how to manage stress in relationships and work through problems using emotionally intelligent communication. These skills will help you, through treatment and beyond, to communicate your needs clearly and respond to your partner?s needs in a healthy and positive way.

Helping the child of a depressed parent

Living with a depressed parent can take a toll on children. Parental love and devotion have nothing to do with it: while in the grips of depression, parents simply do not have the energy or positivity needed to meet all of their kids? needs. As a result, the children may feel abandoned or emotionally disconnected from the people they used to rely on most. They are also likely to be confused or scared, particularly if adults try to ?protect? them by refusing to talk about the depression or answer their questions.

No matter where the extra attention comes from, kids of depressed parents desperately need support. Whether you are the other parent, a friend, or a relative, you can minimize the impact of a parent?s depression on a child. Simply spending time with the children of a depressed parent can do wonders. You don?t need to do anything special; just making kids feel wanted and cared for helps. Encourage the children to talk about their feelings, and ask directly if you can help with anything ? homework, career day at school, a ride to the mall ? things that kids of healthy parents take for granted. When children have a trusted adult to turn to?whether that person is a professional counselor, relative, teacher, or friend?they will feel safer during times of turmoil.
If possible, encourage the depressed parent to talk as openly as they can about the problem with his or her child. If this is not an option, you can help by answering the child?s questions to the best of your abilities. However, the best way to offer lasting help to the child of a depressed parent is to get the parent into treatment. Kids learn from example, and facing problems head on by seeking ? and sticking with - treatment is a great way to teach children to be proactive about their own mental health.

Things Children Need to Hear When a Parent is Depressed
  • Your parent?s depression is not your fault.
  • You can?t fix it and aren?t responsible for taking care of your depressed parent.
  • Your parent still loves you.
  • You are not alone. Many people care about you (it helps to make a list of who). You may talk to them when you need to.
  • There are other adults looking out for you and available to meet your needs (be specific about what might be needed and who will help).
  • It is OK to have whatever feelings you have about this (you may have to help the child identify and name the feelings, and find outlets for expressing them such as drawing or physical activity).
  • It is OK to ask for what you need.
Source: Adapted from

References and resources for helping a depressed person

Helpguide related articles on depression:

Depression: Signs, Symptoms, Types, and Risk Factors

Teen Depression: A Guide for Parents and Teachers

Teen Depression: A Guide for Teenagers

Depression in Older Adults: Signs, Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Depression in Women: Causes, Symptoms and Treatment

Postpartum Depression: Symptoms, Treatment and Support

Depression Self-Help: Tips for managing and fighting depression

Antidepressant Medications: Side Effects, Safety, and Treatment Guidelines

Causes of Depression: Biological, Psychological, and Social Factors

Depression Treatment: Diagnosis and Treatment Options

Suicide Prevention: Understanding and Helping a Suicidal Person

If You are Feeling Suicidal: Ways to Help

Depression is a Family Matter ? According to this article, families do better than patients at recognizing depression and mania. Depression disrupts family life, yet families can be major forces of care, comfort, even cure. (Psychology Today)

Helping Someone Receive Treatment ? What to do (and not to do) when trying to help a loved one get help for depression. (Families for Depression Awareness)

Depression and Relationships: Living with a Depressed Person ? Includes nine rules for living with a depressed person. (Uplift Program)

When Your Partner is Depressed ? Special help for when a depressed partner is resistant to getting treatment. (Psybersquare)

Protecting the Children ? An interview with William Beardslee, M.D., psychiatrist-in-chief of Boston Children's Hospital and author of Out of the Darkened Room. (Psychology Today).

The Family & Friends Guide to Recovery ? Covers how to support a loved one through the depression treatment and recovery process. (Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance)

Suzanne Barston, Melinda Smith , M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. contributed to this article. Last modified on: 7/24/07.
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