We’re social, empathic beings by nature. When someone we love is living with depression, it’s natural to want to reach out and help them.
We hate to see them struggle and we know how it feels to have our world fall apart, in one way or another. But because depression is so complex, it can be difficult to know exactly where to start.
It can get even more tricky when someone we care about is showing signs of serious distress, and we’re not sure how to navigate a crisis. We may be afraid to do something wrong or somehow make things even worse.
Take heart. You are not alone, and there are many ways you can help. It’s possible not only to support someone during a difficult time, but to make sure you’re taking care of yourself, too.
This article will explain common symptoms of depression, warning signs, and how to be there for someone dealing with depression, all while keeping your own mental health in check.
It’s important to know upfront that depression is a unique experience for each individual. Here are some symptoms of depression you might recognize in your loved one:
- feeling sadness or low spirits
- looking fatigued or appearing “shut down”
- sleeping more, or less, than normal
- having fluctuations in appetite
- experiencing weight fluctuations
- expressing guilt, shame, helplessness, or hopelessness
- being pessimistic about the future
- skipping activities or quality time together
- being more reclusive or less communicative
- having difficulty focusing in conversation or seeming distracted
- having trouble remembering things
- being quicker to anger or more irritable than usual
- losing interest in hobbies or activities
- discussing death or self-harm
- experiencing physical symptoms, like headaches or an upset stomach
As you can see, there’s a lot going on there. And there’s no one cause of depression — it could stem from a combination of many factors, like genetic predisposition, personal history, trauma, substance use, major life changes, work stress, family problems, or even an underlying health concern.
In the next sections, we’ll take a look at some key ways you can support a loved one who’s dealing with depression.
Depression can be an isolating experience for some. One of the best things you can do is to let someone know they’re not alone and be open to what they want to share.
It doesn’t have to be complicated, either. Simply listen to what they’re going through. Do not try to fix their problems, give unsolicited advice, or judge their feelings. It’s not something they can just “get over” or “snap out of.” If they could, they would’ve done it already.
If you can relate, share your own experience and what you learned from it. Many people just want to be understood and know that someone cares.
You can also show them this list of 19 quotes about depression, so they know they’re not alone.
When someone with depression decides to seek help, it can be an overwhelming experience. There are doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, helplines, forums, and so much more. Sometimes it’s easier to just close the laptop and push it off for another day.
You can help ease the burden by offering to look up support. Here are some helpful websites:
- American Psychological Association search tool to find a psychologist by zip code
- American Psychiatric Association search tool to find a psychiatrist by zip code
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)’s Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator
Once your loved one is actively in treatment, encourage them to keep going. If they talk about wanting to quit, or stop taking medications, suggest that they discuss it with a mental health professional first. You might want to tell them how much of a positive difference you’ve seen in them already.
For those who live with depression, even small tasks, like brushing teeth or cleaning up the kitchen, may drain emotional bandwidth. For this reason, offering to help with something seemingly small can make a huge difference in someone’s day.
If you have capacity, offer to start a load of laundry, walk the dog, watch the kids for a couple of hours, or drive them to the store.
One symptom that’s common with depression is a reduced ability to get things done, which means things like text messages, e-mails, or social invitations can pile up.
On top of that, depression can cause people to feel guilt or shame about not being able to “get it together.” These feelings could make someone less likely to reach out to you for help.
For now, be the one to extend an invitation or two; it will come back around eventually. Let your loved one know that you’re thinking of them and would love to spend time together, if and when they feel up for it.
Research has shown that several activities can improve mood, including yoga, swimming, getting out in nature, or making art. Suggest one of these activities to do together, if your loved one feels up for it.
You can also offer to help them find out information about adopting a companion of their own and registering a pet as an Emotional Support Animal.
When someone lives with depression, it may increase their risk of self-harm or suicide. Recent statistics show that
Some warning signs include:
- frequent or rapid mood changes
- increased drinking or use of drugs
- internet searches about suicide
- giving away belongings
- purchasing a weapon
- talking about a suicide plan
- an emotional goodbye or interactions feeling “final”
- reclusive behavior or pushing loved ones away
If you see these signs, stay calm and ask your loved one if they are having suicidal thoughts. You may worry that this could give them ideas, but to the contrary, experts agree that it’s useful to discuss it openly.
If your friend or family member works with a psychiatrist or therapist, encourage them to reach out on the phone as soon as possible, with you by their side.
If you suspect that your loved one may attempt suicide, call 911 or drive them to the nearest emergency room. Stay with them until trained professionals can intervene. While you’re waiting, make sure they do not have access to any weapons or drugs.
For some, learning how to support someone with depression can be intense. It’s important to make sure you’re carving out time for your own self-care and well-being on a regular basis. Know what your “cup-fillers” are and keep doing them.
Mark your calendar
Pencil in a few hours with yourself at least once a week, and honor it the same way you would with a work commitment. This could be anything from a restorative yoga class to a massage or a Netflix movie you’ve been dying to watch.
Start a journal
This is a great place to process emotions that come up around depression but wouldn’t necessarily be useful to say out loud to someone in pain.
It’s normal to feel frustrated, exhausted, angry, confused, hurt, and any number of other emotions. Your journal can hold space for all of these thoughts, without judgment. If you’re not sure where to start, check out our guide to journal prompts.
Know your limits and don’t overextend. When you notice your energy starting to wane, it’s time to take some space. It’s not your job to “fix” the person; release yourself of that responsibility.
For example, after a certain time, let your friend or family member know that you’ll need to turn off your phone and get some rest, unless it’s a life-threatening emergency. Reassure them that you’ll be available again tomorrow, or whenever works for you.
Learn about depression
Read this article about what to say, and what not to say, to someone with depression.
The more you know, the less surprised you’ll be as things come up. This will also help you learn not to take things personally if your loved one cancels plans or gets irritable with you. You’ll know it’s not you; it’s just a symptom of depression. They still care about you.
Find your own support
When someone you love has depression, it can take quite a toll. You might start to feel as though you may have depression yourself. A therapist can help you work through challenges and come up with a sustainable game plan for the long term.
A support group is also a great place to process emotions and meet like-minded people who understand what you’re going through. Find a free, confidential NAMI family support in your area.
Depression can be difficult to navigate all around — not only for the person living with it, but for those who are watching someone go through it. Here are some additional resources to dive into:
- How to Help Your Partner Through Their Depression
- I Attempted Suicide. Here’s What I Want Loss Survivors to Know
- What to Know About Dating Someone with Depression
If you only take away one thing, remember this: there is hope. Depression is treatable, and there are new resources cropping up all the time. Give your loved one a squeeze and reassure them it’s going to be alright — and, hey, maybe do that for yourself, too.