When someone you love is diagnosed with depression, your entire world can change. It is hard to know what’s going on with them and how you can help, especially with so much stigma around discussing mental illness. Unlike physical illness, the signs can be hard to detect, and often, mental illness seems uncontrollable and daunting to deal with. But like any other illness, people with depression need the support of those around them.
My mom was scared and sad when I was diagnosed with depression. Though mental illness runs in the family, she hoped I would be lucky enough to escape it. Even worse, I had hidden how bad my mental health was from her for years. She was nervous about what would happen going forward and wanted the best for me. But she didn’t know what she could do to help.
Slowly, we figured it out together. My mom is one part of the support system I have in depressive episodes or when things get rough. But it took work and effort to figure out as we worked from scratch.
I want to help those who are experiencing the same thing my mom did, who are worried about a loved one and don’t know what to do to deal with depression. So here’s a guide to how to help a loved one in your life, whether they just got a diagnosis or have been struggling for a long time. You can be a better friend or family member, deepening your connection and providing support, in just a few simple steps.
Congrats! You’re already reading this article, so you’re starting this step already. Learning about depression on your own, rather than putting the burden on your loved one to explain everything to you can be a huge step towards grappling with mental illness. Since there’s so much stigma around depression, the truth is important so you can understand what’s happening in accurate detail.
There are many great resources out there. Just a few of them include school or private psychologists. Some guides also include conversation starters about depression. Hotlines like the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) can also provide help for you to better understand depression.
Even small things like changing the language you use can help. Instead of referring to your loved one as a “depressed person,” you should say, “person with depression.” This little slip in language can make a huge impact. Think about how you would refer to someone with cancer: saying they’re a “cancerous person” would never happen! Instead, you say they’re a “person with cancer.” Remember, while their illness is something they struggle with, it doesn’t define them. By signaling that you know that through language, you can help your loved one escape from the idea that depression is inescapable.
Learn QPR skills
Not knowing what to do if you’re loved one is in crisis is a horrible feeling. Even though not all people with depression are suicidal, and not all people who experience suicidal thoughts have depression, depression and suicide do go hand in hand. 60 percent of people who die by suicide have had a mood disorder like depression. The risk for suicidality increases with more severe depression. Since the severity of mental illness can change throughout someone’s life, an important skill to have in your back pocket, for your loved one or anyone else you think might be suicidal, is QPR.
Unlike the commonly known CPR, QPR (or Question-Persuade-Refer) is not a physical lifesaving technique, but rather a conversational one. The most important part of QPR is the question, where you ask directly if someone you suspect is suicidal actually is. Just the simple question, “Have you been thinking about ending your life?” can immediately help you figure out if your loved one is in crisis. Assuming the answer to that question was yes, the next step is to persuade that person to get professional help, either immediately or in the short term future, then to refer them to such help. Training for QPR is offered for a fee online, but often local community or therapy center may provide free classes.
If you’re looking to learn more about how to support a loved one with depression, reaching out to a mental health professional is a great place to start. They can better address your individual situation and needs.
Don’t treat them like they’re broken
Sometimes, the worst response to illness is focusing entirely on it. By treating your friend or family member completely differently than you did before, you can make them feel infantilized, or like their depression defines them. They’re the same person that they’ve always been, just with a diagnosis.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t act a little differently. To help a person with depression, changing some of your language or behaviors can go a long way. Depending on the person, they may be hypersensitive to jokes about depression or suicide, which can be triggering or painful (keep in mind that some people use humor to cope, and this is okay too, but don’t be afraid to ask if the jokes are something more).
Additionally, it’s important to be more responsive to changes in behavior or accommodations they might ask for. If they want to stay in one night to take care of themselves instead of going out, be respectful and supportive of that choice (as you should with any friend!) You may also need to be more aware of their behaviors, to help them out when they’re feeling down and let them know you care. The most important thing to do is be there for them on their terms. Start by simply asking them what they need.
Take Care of Yourself
Helping someone with a mental illness can be emotionally taxing. Additionally, when your own wellbeing suffers, the person with depression may feel guilty or like a burden. While this is in no way true, it is important to make sure you can be at your best to provide the support that they need. If you also deal with a mental illness, you can understand their position intimately and want to help them, but you must protect and provide for yourself first and foremost. Your loved one’s illness is not their fault or yours but you can work together to help each other deal with the situation with love.