Your loved one has depression. Maybe they’re isolating themselves. Maybe their energy and mood have taken a nosedive. Maybe they’re irritable and angry. Maybe they aren’t enjoying much, if anything, anymore. Maybe they’re having a hard time concentrating or remembering things. Maybe they’ve mentioned feeling hopeless or worthless. Maybe they make negative comments about themselves. All. The. Time. Maybe they wear a happy face, but you know they’re struggling.
And, understandably, it’s really hard to watch. Because all you want to do is fix their pain. To make it go away. To make it all better.
You yearn to help. But you’re not sure how. Or maybe the things you’ve tried haven’t been well received.
In the book When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do Susan J. Noonan, MD, MPH, offers a variety of valuable suggestions. Dr. Noonan is a physician and part-time certified peer specialist at McLean Hospital. Here are three tips from her book to try.
Really listen to your loved one—without judgment.
Ask your loved one to share how they’re feeling with you (which they may or may not agree to do). When they are ready to talk, listen to them without interrupting, without offering suggestions or talking about yourself. Listen without making assumptions about how they’re feeling, without minimizing or dismissing their experiences. Listen without trying to reassure them. Which is not easy to do, because all we want to shout from the rooftops is: You will be OK. Everything will be OK. Please don’t feel this way.
Instead, acknowledge how they’re feeling. Let them know that you’re hearing their pain. For instance, Noonan shares this example: Your loved one says, “Life is no good. It’s never going to change for me.” You might say: “I hear that life feels no good to you right now and seems hopeless.”
In another example, if your loved one is distraught that no one likes them, you might say: “It must be really awful to feel unlovable when your friends don’t call.”
Noonan also suggests using these phrases and questions: “Tell me more…” “How did that make you feel?” “It sounds like…” “What you seem to be saying is …” “Is that the case? Do I understand correctly?”
“Often in depression, a person loses hope for herself, her future, and her world,” Noonan writes. You can support your loved one by providing them with hope. For instance, you might tell them to “borrow” hope from you. You might say, “I sense that you don’t feel hopeful about ________ right now, but I do. Why don’t you let me keep hope alive for you?”
You might talk about your loved one’s future plans. Which might include returning to school or work or anything they’re taking a leave of absence from. “Your goal is to treat displaced plans as temporary setbacks, not failures,” Noonan writes.
(You also might point them to this piece, which features words of hope for anyone living with depression.)
Help your loved one get help.
Depression is highly treatable. But many people don’t get treatment. Maybe your loved one is hesitant to seek professional help because they believe it means they’re weak or a failure. (It’s actually the exact opposite.) Maybe they’re concerned about the financial burden or others finding out about their depression and judging them. Maybe your loved one is worried that treatment won’t work for them. Knowing why they don’t want treatment is important.
If they decline treatment, Noonan suggests the following: Stress that you love them, and emphasize the importance of treatment for their health and well-being. Give specific examples of your loved one’s symptoms. For instance, “you seem to be more down than usual.” Mention that treatment will help them realize their goals and desires, whether that’s finishing school, pursuing a certain passion or enjoying being with friends, again.
Your loved one might feel overwhelmed about seeing a therapist. How can you make the process easier or less stressful for them? For instance, according to Noonan, you might narrow down the providers to several so they can pick from a small number of practitioners. You might offer to schedule their appointments and arrange health insurance (if the therapist takes it). You also might drive with them to their first few appointments (and sit in the waiting room).
Depression is a serious illness. It can be hard and frustrating to watch your loved one struggle. But there are things you can do—like the above. And you, too, might find it very helpful to talk to a therapist. Because caring for yourself is just as vital.