Supporting a loved one with depression can be challenging - being concerned for your loved one's overall wellbeing, and what the consequences of ignoring it, could be. It takes a lot out of a person to be vigilant about another's mental state, but that is what we do when we love someone. Knowing a companion, or a friend or family member, has depression and being there to support them in the right ways is extremely important to that person's growth.
Being there for your loved one in the right way, is just as important as not being there in the wrong way. Often times, we say things like "just stop ____" or "think about ___ instead", but the reality is that depression is not just a switch that can be turned on and off. Minimizing it to something so simple as 'just chill out' is going to make your loved one feel small, and invalidated in their suffering.
Since we definitely don't want to do that, let's go over some key steps to supporting your loved one the right way.
Do some research
Learning the signs and symptoms of depression, as well as getting yourself acquainted with the concepts and ideas behind why depression is happening, is super important to make sure that you are there for your loved one. If you have never experienced depression, you can't relate to what someone who is diagnosed is going through. Nothing feels the same, or can be explained the same. If you are one of those people who hasn't been diagnosed, the next best thing to understand your loved one's plight is to do the research. A few examples of symptoms are:
excessive tiredness/never sleeping
feeling of worthlessness, hopelessness, unending sadness
lack of interest in plans with friends, leaving the house, favorite tv shows
change in diet (eating either more or less)
loss of interest in sex
trouble concentrating, thinking, and remembering
It is important to pay attention to not only the mental health symptoms, but the physical symptoms as well. Depression eats away at your willingness to do anything. This includes drink water, eat food, rest - most of the physical requirements for survival! You can't get inside a person's head and change their chemical makeup, but you can make sure they are taken care of with water and snacks during a depressive episode.
Discuss your concerns
Sometimes, depressed people need others around them to validate that feeling, but not in a judgmental way - in a supportive way. I say this coming from my own experiences as a diagnosed depressive individual - when you start slipping into that side of your headspace, things around you begin to deteriorate and you don't even realize. Soon you're sinking back into a depressive episode again. If you have a support system around you that knows you, when things start to get hairy they will step in.
As the support system, 'stepping in' can mean a lot of different things. It could be as casual as a text, or a phone call - "just checking in, sis, let me know when we can get together". It could be a lunch date, giving you the chance to provide an open space for your loved one to vent, to express their frustrations and their emotions without the pressure of a medical professional. It could even be just coming by their apartment with some A+ takeout, watching trash TV, and doing a face mask. You know your loved one best - do something that can boost their mood!
Know the signs - worsening depression
I made this point briefly above, but we're going to dive into it a little more here. The first, BIG thing to remember - depression effects everyone differently. There are no two people who have exactly the same symptoms, the same side effects, or the same struggles.
With that being said, ask yourself these questions:
What are the typical signs and symptoms of depression that your loved one displays?
What behaviors/languages do you notice when the depression is worse?
What behaviors/languages do you notice when they are doing well?
Have you noticed any circumstances/events that trigger the severe episodes?
What activities/situations are most helpful for your loved one during these situations?
If you notice, with legitimacy, that your loved ones depression symptoms are worsening, it needs to be addressed right away. Talk with them and ask them if they are willing to go to a mental health professional to shed light on the symptom severity and find the means to manage it when it gets to that degree.
Treatment is the next step. If your loved one is seeking treatment, do not be surprised if they need your help. Task management is extremely difficult for people suffering from depression, and the idea of making a phone call can seem so daunting - even if you know you need to do it. In that space, after discussing with your loved one, make yourself available to help make appointments/take your loved one to said appointment.
If your loved one is hesitant to see a mental health professional, such as a therapist of a psychologist, see if they will see their primary care physician instead. This provides them with the safety net of someone they already know and are comfortable with, and also gives them a chance to speak with a medical professional about some of the things they are experiencing. Yes, we want them to speak to a specialized mental health professional, but a visit with their everyday doctor can open the door to a path to treatment.
Support this new routine
Steps have been taken, we have made it to the point that your loved one has a treatment plan. This could be recurring scheduled therapy visits, medication, at home techniques, or any mix of the three.
If your loved one sees a therapist, sometimes it is extremely helpful for you to go with them. Not only does this provide you a better insight to what is going on, hearing the information for support directly from the doctor instead of via your loved one (remember, depression severely affects your short term memory and many other cognitive functioning capabilities, so it's easy to lose information even in the short trip from the office to the car), but can also provide insight for the doctor to treat your loved one more efficiently. Sometimes, as mentioned previously, a depressed person's support network notice changes that they wouldn't notice otherwise. This information can be shared with the doctor/therapist, and can help sculpt a clear treatment path.
Sometimes in depression treatment, mental health professionals will utilize Behavioral Activation therapy, which involves engaging in activities that one finds meaningful. This can be an enjoyable form of exercise, volunteering, having a craft night, riding horses, etc.
Lastly, establishing a routing is insanely helpful. Try to schedule taking a small walk around the block once a day, or try to take medication around the same time in a ritual sort of fashion. This helps guarantee that your loved one is being taken care of, but is also getting out of the house and breathing fresh air - this is going to help release endorphins and promote better brain chemistry in your loved one.
Treatment - it's working!
Your loved one has been undergoing treatment for a while now, and it's working! How can we tell? There's lots of little ways to pick up on a positive reception of treatment, but it'll definitely be apparent in the way your loved one acts. They will most likely have better eye contact as they start feeling better, they will smile more often and have more relaxed facial features.
Usually they are calmer, and you may notice them isolating themselves less. Food and sleep are no longer distant cousins, they are best friends again - your loved one will have an appetite for food, and for life.
Treatment - it's not working!
Your loved one has been undergoing treatment for a while now, and it doesn't seem to be working. We always want to be concerned when treatment is leaving depression the same, if not worse, but something to keep an eye out for in particular for medicated (and unmedicated) individuals - is suicidal ideologies or thoughts.
If you notice signs of loved ones having suicidal thoughts - things like saying goodbye as if they're going to disappear, purchasing a gun/hoarding pills, expressing hopelessness or feeling trapped, or getting their affairs in order and making statements like "I wish I was dead" - you need to take steps to ensure their safety.
Suicidal thoughts are scary, but are very real. The average human being would have to go through substantial life-shattering traumas to even consider something as serious as taking their own life - but for depression affected individuals, it can be much easier to slip into feeling that way. With the severity of the situation, and the reality that it definitely can happen to anyone, it's important to prepare yourself for the possibility that your loved one feels this way.
If that is the case, and they haven't seen a mental health professional, try and convince them to do so. Whether they are already seeing a therapist, or if you have to help in setting them up with one, make sure you go to this appointment with them. You want to be there for support, but at this point it is now about the potential of saving your loved one's life. Make sure that you remove any weapons from the house, remove any pill-hoards or liquor bottles. If your loved one refuses support, and refuses to get help, you may have to call a mental health hotline yourself.
Overall, provide support
All the above is definitely not a roadmap to depression - some things may happen, others never will. It is important, as the support system, to know where you stand, and to be ready for any possibility.
When you love someone, you are there for them through thick and thin - so make sure you're prepared for anything.
Encourage them to stick with treatment
Be willing to listen
Give positive reinforcement
Help with a low-stress environment
Encourage participation in religion/faith based experienced, if applicable
Make plans together
Take care of you, too
The last step in providing an all-encompassing support system for your loved one suffering with depression is taking care of yourself. You cannot support them if you are a mess!
learning about depression will help you understand what is going on. This can prevent you from having any negative thoughts about yourself - i.e, "they don't want to go out with me", instead of "they don't want to go out because their depression is suffocating them"
don't be afraid to ask for help, and reach out for support. There are local and national support services, but you also have friends and family - your support system can help you support your loved one. Make sure you find time for your own hobbies, friends, and life!
BE PATIENT. Understand that depression symptoms take a while to actually go away, and it is not a switch. It will be weeks worth of slow and steady growth in your loved one. Do not be upset with them, and do not expect unrealistic results. For some people, symptoms clear quicker than others - keep yourself patient and understanding during the process for both you, and your loved one.
Pruthi, S. (2018, November 28). Depression: Supporting a family member or friend. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression/art-20045943
Rapaport, L., Marks, J. L., Alkon, C., Robertson, R., Pugle, M., Métraux, J., Upham, B., & Patel, R. B. (2021). 6 ways to help a loved one with depression. EverydayHealth.com. Retrieved September 28, 2022, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/depression-pictures/ways-to-help-loved-one-with-depression.aspx