When a loved one suffers from depression, it clan be felt by the entire family. It can feel, at times, like a thick fog permeating the air. Your once wide-eyed and rosy-cheeked daughter might look fragile and sad, as if someone else exists in her body. She no longer sees her friends or attends her morning yoga classes.
Or maybe it’s your older brother, who, after struggling with depression for years, routinely talking to a phycologist, and taking medication, doesn’t seem to feel better.
When, as family and friends, you are the observer of depression and are challenged to find a way to deal with it in others, you might not know when or where to begin.
While every case of depression is unique to the individual, there are universal ways to guide your family member through their suffering and toward the path of healing.
The best way to understand and empathize with someone experiencing depression is to educate yourself about depression, and mental illness. Your loved one will not necessarily discuss their symptoms with you, and expecting them to can be problematic because they might be embarrassed to express how they feel.
The more you can educate yourself about what depression is, the less afraid of it you will be.
Fear of mental illness is often rooted in lack of education and understanding. A common misconception is thinking mental illness is one thing, and that people suffering from depression share the same experience. When in reality, depression, like any mental illness, varies in severity, symptoms, and treatment.
You don’t have to be a neuroscientist or a psychologist to retain some basic knowledge about what depression is, and why people struggle with it. These general resources can be a start.
Mental Health America: https://www.mhanational.org/
National Alliance on Mental Illness: https://www.nami.org/Home
Anxiety and Depression Association of America: https://adaa.org/
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline
When someone is dealing with a mental health illness like depression, they might resist asking for help. As family members, we need to ask ourselves what necessary role we play in our loved one’s struggle with depression. We may have to push ourselves out of our comfort zone, if we’re not familiar with approaching and engaging in the topic of mental health. Trust that you know your loved one better than any mental health care professional, and your familiarity with each other is the best place to start.
A simple question like, “What can I do to help?” can create a safe space for your loved one to talk openly about what’s on their mind.
Ask your family member if they’d like to go for a walk, or invite them to join you in a safe and private space to have these conversations. No one wants to be bombarded with questions about their mental illness experience in an uncomfortable or social setting, and this will likely shut down the conversation.
Listen with empathy.
It can be difficult to someone dealing with depression to let down their guard because they’re afraid of judgement and discrimination. While our society has made massive strides in destigmatizing mental health, the general rejection of the dark and grey moods associated with depression still exist.
Your loved one may defend themselves against their darker moods, and be afraid to present them against the light and positive tones in comparison.
Before initiating the conversation, or expecting it to go a certain way, know that discussing mental illness can feel nerve-wracking and vulnerable for the person experiencing it. Let your loved one know they are heard and understood by listening closely, and not interrupting.
Be a normalizing presence.
While as not to suppress their thoughts or feelings, you can remind your loved one that they are not defined by their mental illness. Acknowledging what exists in the moment, like the temperature of the room, or the sun shining in through the window, can help your loved one feel present and connected to life outside of their head.
You don’t need to always talk about depression with your loved one. Share time together without reminding them of their depression: you might watch a movie together or go for a walk without talking. Above all, make sure that your loved one knows they are supported and cared about unconditionally.
Pay attention to your words.
Choose your words wisely when talking to someone about their experience with mental illness. Telling your loved one to “cheer up” or defining their well-being as “lazy” or “crazy” devalues their experience with mental illness, and will prevent them from participating in the conversation. Avoid any phrases like, “you don’t look that sad,” “it could be worse,” “it can’t be that bad.”
Remind your loved one that they are loved, listened to, supported, and a special part of your life. Ask genuine questions, where they can see themselves clearly, like, “how are you feeling today?” or “what can I do to support you?”
Share your experiences.
Sharing your experiences with mental health, even if they are not on the scale of what your loved one endures, can show them that they are not alone, and they will get through this. Through sharing, you can open the door for your loved one to see themself in your story and feel human.
Help create a low-stress schedule or routine.
Between work obligations, doctors appointments, exercise regimens, meal-plans, and social activities, we can all benefit from daily schedules and routines. But it is especially important for people struggling with mental health disorders to follow routines, helping them feel more in control of their lives, and creating space for them to get out of their head.
You can help your loved one by creating a low-stress schedule and daily routine together. Start with the simple routines, like bed-making, room-cleaning, meal-planning: daily tasks that your loved one can follow and accomplish. It might be helpful to create a reminder list too, for meditation, therapy appointments, physical activity, eating, and sleeping.
Know the warning signs of suicide.
Warning signs of suicide include; talking about suicide and death; looking for ways to self harm; talking about hopelessness or having no reason to live; talking about being trapped or in unbearable pain; talking about being a burden to others; increasing the use of alcohol or drugs; behaving recklessly or acting anxiously; sleeping too much or too little; withdrawing or isolating themselvess; showing rage or talking about seeking rage, and extreme mood swings.
If you’ve noticed any of these warning signs in your loved one, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immedietly. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline provides free, confidential support 24/7.