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How to support a loved one with depression

Mental health · May 2, 2022

Depression can take many forms. No two situations are the same, and one person’s experience with depression may vary greatly from another’s.

One thing is clear: unfortunately, chances are that at some stage, someone you know will be affected by depression. One in eight Canadians1 will experience clinical depression at some point in their life. Knowing how to help support someone experiencing depression may be helpful.

7 ways to help support someone with depression

It can be difficult to watch a loved one go through depression. Stigma often surrounds mental illness, and sometimes you may be unsure of what to do. “There’s a misconception that causes some to write it off because it’s ‘all in your head,’" says Richelle Mottosky, a registered psychologist who specializes in treating depression. “But our whole operating process is also ‘in our head’ too. There is sometimes a sense of ‘magical thinking’ that depression will just go away on its own. But unresolved depression can often be a far bigger problem than diagnosed depression.” If you know someone experiencing depression, here are things you can do that may be helpful:

1. Show compassion

Showing your friend or family member that you truly care about them is the first step. This may take the form of starting a conversation. While sometimes it may be difficult to know what to say, know that oftentimes the most valuable thing for someone experiencing depression may be a listening ear. You can start the conversation by asking questions like:

  • “Do you want to talk about it?”

  • “That sounds really hard. How are you coping?”

  • “What can I do to help you today?”

“Even if you aren’t sure exactly what to say, letting someone know you are there for them to talk about hard feelings when they want to is better than nothing,” Mottosky says. By opening the door for conversation, you can show your loved one that you genuinely care about how they are doing and are there to listen.

2. Help them find support

If someone is experiencing depression it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to seeking help.

“When depression goes untreated, it impedes someone’s day-to-day functioning,” Mottosky says. “It prevents the person experiencing it from living their best life. A mental health professional can help someone experiencing depression find a way to make sure it doesn’t control every aspect of their life.”

If your friend or family member is willing to pursue therapy, you can help them by helping them find out what support is available. Whether researching therapy options, helping them think through what they would like to discuss in their first session, or driving your loved one to an appointment, there are things you can do that can make it easier for your loved one to find and receive the help they need.

3. Make plans to socialize – but be flexible

One of the signs commonly associated with depression is withdrawing from social activities. Your loved one may not feel like initiating plans to get together. But prolonged isolation may in fact make depression symptoms worse.

Make loose plans to get together, but understand that in doing so, there is a chance they may not be up for socializing when the time comes. Remind them that you are flexible, and that you understand they may not want to meet up if they are in a particularly rough patch, but that you will be happy to see them when they feel ready.

4. Do your own research

Understanding more about what depression is, how it affects someone and how it is treated can help you be a better support person for your loved one.

“Clinical depression is not the same thing as being sad for a week, it’s not the same thing as grief,” Mottosky explains. “It can cause physiological and biochemical changes, meaning that someone may not be able to do things that make them feel joy. Even if they are surrounded by people that love them, a person can still experience depression.”

Understanding the differences between depression and feelings of sadness is important when trying to support someone. Avoid asking them to explain it all to you – as well intentioned as your questions may be, this may be exhausting for someone who is living through depression themselves. “We want to help - which is a good thing,” Mottosky says. “But often the solutions we provide, when we ourselves don’t understand enough about the situation, aren’t helpful.”

Doing your own research is important. Books like This Is Depression by psychiatrist and educator Diane McIntosh can be a helpful place to start.

5. Offer to help with specific day-to-day tasks

When someone is experiencing depression, tasks like going grocery shopping or doing laundry can seem daunting.

“Sometimes someone experiencing depression can’t get out of bed. Even brushing their teeth may seem hard,” says Mottosky.

Letting someone know you’re there to help is a great first step. But difficulty making decisions can sometimes be associated with depression. Rather than saying something more general like “Let me know if you need anything,” you may offer to help with a specific task. “Be very specific in how you can help remove a potential obstacle that that person may otherwise have been facing,” Mottosky says.

Going to the grocery store? Give your friend or family member a call and see if they need anything, or if they’d like to tag along. Or offer to come over and help with a household chore, like tidying a particular room or tending to the garden. Doing this together may be more manageable for your loved one than them trying to do so on their own.

6. Understand that it’s not on you to ‘fix’ them

When a person you care about is experiencing depression, it’s natural to want to help them and to hope they will feel better soon. But depression is a serious medical condition that requires professional treatment. “You can help. You can be a source of comfort. But recognize that you alone cannot fully fix the problem - and that is okay,” Mottosky says.

Just as you would not expect yourself to be able to ‘fix’ the situation if your loved one had cancer or diabetes, so too should you not expect that you will be able to single-handedly cure them of depression. While this may sound discouraging, remember that being there for them, even if you can’t eradicate the problem, is still incredibly valuable.

“Just being with someone can go a long way,” says Mottosky. You may not be able to cure their depression, but your support may be a very important way for helping them cope. It may make more of a positive difference than it may seem.

7. Remember to take care of yourself

Practicing self-care is something that is easy to neglect when you are taking care of someone else. But it may in fact make you a better caregiver. If you aren’t properly taking care of yourself, you may not be able to properly take care of someone else.

Remember that it is okay (and may in fact be healthy) to have boundaries. Letting your loved one know you can talk at certain times of the day, but not others, is perfectly acceptable. You can also tap into your own support network. Maybe there are other relatives or mutual friends that can check in on your loved one when you aren’t available or need some downtime.

Finding support

Talking with a mental health professional is an important step in treating depression. And as someone trying to help a loved one with depression, you may find it valuable to seek support too.

“Being resilient doesn’t mean that things magically go away overnight,” Mottosky says. “It means we strengthen our ability to adapt. Psychological strength comes from doing things that may seem hard at first.”

TELUS Health Care Centres offers psychology and counseling services in-person and virtually in British Columbia and Alberta. Filling out a short contact form will put you in touch with a wellness coordinator at the clinic who can help with next steps. If you’d prefer to speak with someone over the phone, call 1-866-937-3892.

Written in consultation with Richelle Mottosky, registered psychologist.


References

  1. Depression. CMHA British Columbia. (2013). Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/depression-2/

Authored by:
Emily Gilbert
TELUS Health Care Centres