When a loved one is having a depressive episode you may want to help cheer them up. Here’s how to do it with intention.
Knowing that a loved one is dealing with depression and not knowing how to support them can be challenging.
No one wants to watch someone they care about deal with difficult situations alone.
Determining the right things to say or do may not always feel intuitive, but that’s OK. There are several ways you can show up for a friend who’s experiencing depression without overstepping boundaries or stretching yourself thin.
One note on ‘cheering someone up’
Humans are naturally empathetic beings, so the desire to “cheer up” a loved one during a depressive episode is understandable. However, depression is like any other chronic condition: It can be managed and treated, but it can’t just disappear overnight. When someone experiences a depressive episode, it may be helpful to be strategic when you’re trying to cheer them up.
Many people who have depression may find it challenging when others try to cheer them up when they’re feeling down.
When someone you care about is experiencing depression, finding productive ways to provide support may be the best course of action. Here are a few ideas.
Start a conversation
Bryan Bruno, MD, medical director at Mid City TMS in New York, says one of the best ways to support a loved one through their depression is to start a conversation.
He suggests phrasing questions thoughtfully, especially if they’re showing signs of suicidality. This can be done by inviting them to share their feelings first.
“One easy way to strike this balance is to open up with an acknowledgment of their feelings and ask how they’re doing,” Bruno says. “This will let them know that you’re there for them while also creating a safe space where they can share their feelings if they wish.”
Because of the potentially sensitive nature of the conversation, Bruno says if possible, an in-person conversation may be the ideal way to go. If this isn’t possible, a video chat may be another option.
Do your homework
It’s OK if depression or depressive episodes aren’t topics you’re well-versed in — you’re not expected to be an expert.
But if you’re feeling a lack of confidence in your knowledge of the subject and want to support a friend or loved one, you may wish to consider doing some research.
“Before opening up a dialogue with your loved one, consider learning about depression on your own time,” Bruno says. “Educating yourself will not only dispel mental health myths and stereotypes but also equip you to listen actively and give more considerate advice when needed.”
Like other mental health conditions, there’s no one-size-fits-all method for addressing depression. It’s OK to have questions about how it affects your loved one and their unique circumstances. You could find, though, that having a baseline understanding can go a long way.
“Having to explain their condition over and over to others is exhausting,” Bruno says. “Learning about the symptoms, causes, and treatments of depression can lead to a more productive and less burdensome conversation.”
When navigating depression, especially if it’s a new diagnosis, it could take time for your loved one to reach a place that seems sustainable.
Whether finding a therapist that’s a good fit, acclimating to new or different medications, or developing coping strategies — these things can take time.
Because depression isn’t a condition that has a clear end date, and may potentially be triggered by a number of things, be prepared for your loved one to have both good and bad days.
If your goal is to support them, being consistent regardless of whether it’s a good mental health day or not is important.
Being patient can also include continuing to gently extend invitations for outings, even if you don’t think they’ll show up. It may be helpful to know you’re still being considered and wanted at events without the pressure or guilt of not feeling up to it.
Support them in tangible ways
Have you ever said, “Let me know what I can do!” to a friend who’s having a rough time? While it may seem like a common and courteous question, it could sometimes be unhelpful.
Even with the best intentions, when you ask someone what you can do to help, you place responsibility on the person who’s having a hard time.
When you rely on someone who has depression to ask you for help, it may lead to overwhelm. Oftentimes depression can make simple, everyday tasks feel difficult.
Instead, try being more specific with your questions. Here are a few ideas:
- “Would it be helpful if I grabbed you some dinner on my way home from work today?”
- “I’m going to take your trash out on my way to the car, do you have any recycling?”
- “I’m going to run some errands in the city, I can drive over and scoop the kids from karate if you’d like!”
- “I have a coupon code for Instacart, I can have some groceries delivered over here on Wednesday if that’s OK with you?”
- “Would you like me to take your dog for walks this week?”
Even the most well-meaning friends may occasionally have missteps or unintentionally cross a line with their loved ones during a depressive episode. Here’s what you may want to avoid doing when someone you know has depression.
Unsolicited advice or opinions
Regardless of what you may know about depression, Bruno advises against offering unsolicited advice to a loved one.
“Rather than immediately offering your input, use other active listening techniques like nodding your head, asking follow-up questions, and validating their experiences with affirmations,” Bruno says.
Everyone has their own way of navigating their mental disorder, and if they aren’t a danger to themselves or someone else, it may be counterproductive to judge their process.
If you believe your friend or a loved one is a danger to themselves or someone else, you might encourage them to enact their safety plan or reach out to their therapist or another crisis support person.
- talking about wanting to die, being a burden, or shame
- feeling trapped or hopeless
- having overwhelming emotional pain
- withdrawing from friends, giving away important items, and saying goodbye
- changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- risky behavior, including substance misuse
If you’re acutely concerned about their safety and they consent, you might consider staying with them while they make the call for support and help.
Suicide prevention resources
If you or someone you care about is having thoughts of suicide or self-harm, free support is available with these resources:
- The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Call the Lifeline at 800-273-8255, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
- The Crisis Text Line. Text HOME to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
- The Trevor Project. LGBTQIA+ and under 25 years old? Call 866-488-7386, text “START” to 678678, or chat online 24-7.
- Veterans Crisis Line. Call 800-273-8255, text 838255, or chat online 24-7.
- Deaf Crisis Line. Call 321-800-DEAF (3323) or text “HAND” at 839863.
- Befrienders Worldwide. This international crisis helpline network can help you find a local helpline.
Psych Central resources
In addition to the resources above, we’ve collected suicide prevention, depression, and LGBTQIA+ hotline numbers in the following articles:
Sustain healthy boundaries
We’re human and it’s natural for frustrations to occur, even with the most patient people. Even so, try to do your best to maintain perspective with a friend or family member that’s navigating a depressive episode.
Supporting someone during a delicate time can be taxing, and taking care of yourself is important. Neglecting yourself may lead to the focus being placed in the wrong direction during a sensitive time.
If you feel yourself growing irritable, it’s OK — just try to take a step back. Consider if you should implement new boundaries to help keep both you and your loved one on good terms.
Supporting a loved one through their depression may not be easy, but it’s possible to do so in a way that feels good to both you and your pal.
Remember that everyone has different needs and that depression is a chronic condition with no ultimate cure.
This doesn’t mean that things won’t get better — plenty of people navigate depression and still lead full lives. But it does emphasize the importance of being sensitive to what a friend needs during a delicate time, rather than what you feel may be best.
Try to take care of yourself during these times as well, because burnout limits your capacity to be your optimal self, and that’s what both you and your loved one deserve.