If your loved one is struggling with depression, you may feel confused, frustrated and distraught yourself. Maybe you feel like you’re walking on eggshells because you’re afraid of upsetting them even more. Maybe you’re at such a loss that you’ve adopted the silent approach. Or maybe you keep giving your loved one advice, which they just aren’t taking.
Depression is an insidious, isolating disorder, which can sabotage relationships. And this can make not knowing how to help all the more confusing.
But your support is significant. And you can learn the various ways to best support your loved one. Below, Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist who’s struggled with depression herself, shares nine valuable strategies.
1. Be there.
According to Serani, the best thing you can do for someone with depression is to be there. “When I was struggling with my own depression, the most healing moments came when someone I loved simply sat with me while I cried, or wordlessly held my hand, or spoke warmly to me with statements like ‘You’re so important to me.’ ‘Tell me what I can do to help you.’ ‘We’re going to find a way to help you to feel better.’”
2. Try a small gesture.
If you’re uncomfortable with emotional expression, you can show support in other ways, said Serani, who’s also author of the excellent book Living with Depression.
She suggested everything from sending a card or a text to cooking a meal to leaving a voicemail. “These gestures provide a loving connection [and] they’re also a beacon of light that helps guide your loved one when the darkness lifts.”
3. Don’t judge or criticize.
What you say can have a powerful impact on your loved one. According to Serani, avoid saying statements such as: “You just need to see things as half full, not half empty” or “I think this is really all just in your head. If you got up out of bed and moved around, you’d see things better.”
These words imply “that your loved one has a choice in how they feel – and has chosen, by free will, to be depressed,” Serani said. They’re not only insensitive but can isolate your loved one even more, she added.
4. Avoid the tough-love approach.
Many individuals think that being tough on their loved one will undo their depression or inspire positive behavioral changes, Serani said. For instance, some people might intentionally be impatient with their loved one, push their boundaries, use silence, be callous or even give an ultimatum (e.g., “You better snap out of it or I’m going to leave”), Serani said. But consider that this is as useless, hurtful and harmful as ignoring, pushing away or not helping someone who has cancer.
5. Don’t minimize their pain.
Statements such as“You’re just too thin-skinned” or “Why do you let every little thing bother you?” shame a person with depression, Serani said. It invalidates what they’re experiencing and completely glosses over the fact that they’re struggling with a difficult disorder – not some weakness or personality flaw.
6. Avoid offering advice.
It probably seems natural to share advice with your loved one. Whenever someone we care about is having a tough time, we yearn to fix their heartache.
But Serani cautioned that “While it may be true that the depressed person needs guidance, saying that will make them feel insulted or even more inadequate and detach further.”
What helps instead, Serani said, is to ask, “What can we do to help you feel better?” This gives your love one the opportunity to ask for help. “When a person asks for help they are more inclined to be guided and take direction without feeling insulted,” she said.
7. Avoid making comparisons.
Unless you’ve experienced a depressive episode yourself, saying that you know how a person with depression feels is not helpful, Serani said. While your intention is probably to help your loved one feel less alone in their despair, this can cut short your conversation and minimize their experience.
8. Learn as much as you can about depression.
You can avoid the above missteps and misunderstandings simply by educating yourself about depression. Once you can understand depression’s symptoms, course and consequences, you can better support your loved one, Serani said.
For instance, some people assume that if a person with depression has a good day, they’re cured. According to Serani, “Depression is not a static illness. There is an ebb and flow to symptoms that many non-depressed people misunderstand.” As she explained, an adult who’s feeling hopeless may still laugh at a joke, and a child who’s in despair may still attend class, get good grades and even seem cheerful.
“The truth is that depressive symptoms are lingering elsewhere, hidden or not easy to see, so it’s important to know that depression has a far and often imperceptible range,” Serani said.
9. Be patient.
Serani believes that patience is a pivotal part of supporting your loved one. “When you’re patient with your loved one, you’re letting them know that it doesn’t matter how long this is going to take, or how involved the treatments are going to be, or the difficulties that accompany the passage from symptom onset to recovery, because you will be there,” she said.
And this patience has a powerful result. “With such patience, comes hope,” she said. And when you have depression, hope can be hard to come by.
Sometimes supporting someone with depression may feel like you’re walking a tight rope. What do I say? What do I not say? What do I do? What do I not do?
But remember that just by being there and asking how you can help can be an incredible gift.