My intention of this post is to empower those supporting their loved one who is dealing with depression (or mental illness). The information is from my own experiences as well as some research.
Refrain from Judgement, Criticism or sSame
Someone who is depressed may already be experiencing self-judgement, shame and criticism. What you say can have a powerful impact on your loved one. Avoid saying statements such as: “You just need to see things as half full, not half empty” or “I think this is all just in your head; If you got up out of bed and moved around, you’d see things differently” or “Be grateful for all of the positive in your life.” These words imply that your loved one has a choice in how they feel – and has chosen, by free will, to be depressed. They’re not only insensitive but can isolate your loved one even more.
Avoid the Tough-love Approach
Many individuals think that being tough on their loved one will undo their depression or inspire positive behavioral changes. For instance, some people might intentionally be impatient with their loved one, push their boundaries, use silence, be callous or even give an ultimatum (e.g., “You better snap out of it or I’m going to leave”). Consider that this is as useless, hurtful and harmful as ignoring, pushing away or not helping someone who has cancer.
Don’t Minimize Their Pain
Statements such as “Why do you let every little thing bother you?” or “Everyone experiences difficult times in life” shame a person with depression. It invalidates what they’re experiencing and completely glosses over the fact that they’re struggling with a difficult disorder – not some weakness or personality flaw.
Avoid Offering Advice
It probably seems natural to share advice with your loved one. Whenever someone we care about is having a tough time, we yearn to fix their heartache. While it may be true that the depressed person needs guidance, saying that will make them feel insulted or even more inadequate and detach further. Consider asking some of the following questions which are validating and supportive: “What can I do to support you, help you feel better and heal?” This empowers your loved one, giving them the opportunity to determine what they need and ask for help. When a person asks for help they are more inclined to be guided and take direction without feeling judged.
Avoid Making Comparisons
Unless you’ve experienced a depressive episode yourself, saying that you know how a person with depression feels is not helpful. While your intention is probably to help your loved one feel less alone in their despair, this can cut short your conversation and minimize their experience. It would be more powerful and productive to say you don’t know how they feel and may not know what to do, however you are there for them and will support them in their healing.
One of the most powerful things you can do for someone with depression is to be there for them. The most supportive and healing moments are when someone I love simply sits with me while I cry, listens with compassion, holds my hand or gives me a hug, or speaks warmly to me with statements like: “I love you, I’m here for you”, “Tell me what I can do to support you”, “Together, we’re going to find a way to help you to feel better / heal.”
Offer a Gesture of Support
If you’re uncomfortable with emotional expression, you can show support in other ways such as sending a card or a text, calling, cooking a meal, accompanying them to an appointment, going out to a movie or a walk in nature. When depressed even some day to day tasks can feel overwhelming. These gestures provide a loving connection and they’re also a beacon of light that helps guide your loved one when the darkness lifts.
Learn as Much as You Can About Depression
You can avoid the above missteps and misunderstandings simply by educating yourself about depression. Once you can understand depression’s symptoms, course and consequences, you can better support your loved one. For instance, some people assume that if a person with depression has a good day, they’re cured. Depression is not a static illness; there is an ebb and flow to symptoms that many non-depressed people misunderstand. For example, an adult who’s feeling hopeless may still laugh at a joke, and a child who’s in despair may still attend class, get good grades and even seem cheerful. The truth is that depressive symptoms are lingering elsewhere, hidden or not easy to see, so it’s important to know that depression has a far and often imperceptible range.
Understand That Depression Doesn’t Mean ‘Sadness’. Depression is a condition with a variety of symptoms such as:
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt, fixating on past failures or blaming yourself for things that aren’t your responsibility
- Feelings of sadness, tearfulness, emptiness or hopelessness
- Angry outbursts, irritability or frustration, even over small matters
- Sleep disturbances including insomnia or sleeping too much
- Loss of interest or pleasure in most or all normal activities
- Tiredness and lack of energy, so even small tasks take extra effort
- Changes in appetite — often reduced appetite and weight loss, but increased cravings for food and weight gain in some people
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness
- Slowed thinking, speaking or body movements
- Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
- Frequent or recurrent thoughts of death, suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts or suicide
- Unexplained physical problems, such as back pain or headaches
**Irritability is a very common symptom, for example, and rarely are people who experience this symptom extended any sympathy. Naturally, it’s hard to be compassionate if someone is grumping at you – and naturally, adults can (to some extent) control their own behavior (so you shouldn’t feel that you have to tolerate bad behavior because someone has depression), but irritability from depression can be as hard to control as sadness or insomnia. Validation is as good a tool as there is for dealing with depression manifesting as irritability. While not allowing someone to speak to you in a way you don’t want, you can validate their feelings of frustration or general malaise. For example: “That sounds so hard. I’m so sorry you’re feeling frustrated.”
Validate, Validate, Validate
Validation isn’t just a good tool for dealing with irritability, it’s a good tool for dealing with every aspect of having a loved one with a chronic illness. Logic will not help. Someone with depression is not living in the same universe as you. The laws that govern your universe do not exist in theirs. It can be incredibly frustrating to have people act like what you are experiencing is not real, or is wrong, or is not reality. Validation doesn’t mean you agree with them, it simply means validating how they are feeling or experiencing reality. I desperately wish I could believe it when my loved ones tell me they love me, I’m important and I make a difference however when going through a depressive episode I feel ‘small’, worthless, invisible, unlovable and hopeless. It can be very difficult to explain this alternate reality to someone who does not have mental illness. Please try to understand that rational thinking will not work because logic literally doesn’t exist in the universe we currently inhabit.
Set Healthy Boundaries
As a caregiver or loved one, supporting someone experiencing depression may become physically and emotionally taxing. It’s important to talk about behaviors that are acceptable / unacceptable.
Adhere to the Treatment Plan
Explain to your loved one the importance of seeking, and willingly participating in, treatment for the illness. Require that they follow their mental health practitioners’ advice. Insist that they agree to faithfully adhere to their prescribed treatment plan and/or medications, as directed. Also make it clear that they must agree to attend any medical appointments without fail. (*consider holistic medication and treatment options)
If your loved one has engaged in abusive language, explain that you will attempt to be patient and understanding, but insist that they make an effort to refrain from engaging in such behavior in the future. If they have engaged in any sort of physical abuse or violence, self harm insist that they stop. If you feel you or your loved one is physically at risk, ask for help from other family members or friends. If necessary, call law enforcement, help lines or 911.
Kids Help Phone (Canada-wide): 1-800-668-6868
Mental Health Crisis Line (Canada-wide): 1-888-893-8333
Suicide and Crisis Hotline (Canada-wide): 1-800-448-3000
Support Constructive Habits
Suggest that the restless or agitated loved one may wish to channel their energy into constructive behaviors, such as engaging in exercise, meditation, playing an instrument, etc. These activities are significantly associated with a reduced risk of depression, and may help accelerate recovery.
Encourage Healthy Habits
Insist that your loved one make an effort to eat a healthy diet. Consider supplementing the diet with vitamin D and fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids). Studies suggest that people with depression are often deficient in these nutrients. Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is associated with improved outcomes among patients taking antidepressant medications. Studies also show that people with higher levels of vitamin D and omega-3 fatty acids are less likely to become depressed. Some experts suggest taking from 2,000 to 10,000 IU vitamin D daily for the relief of vitamin D insufficiency or deficiency.
Keep Time for Yourself
Ensure that your loved one understands that you cannot be present 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You need and deserve time to yourself. Insist that he or she realize that you must also be allowed sufficient time to care for your own needs. Support them in building a support group.
Be Patient and Compassionate
Patience and compassion is a pivotal part of supporting your loved one. When you’re patient and compassionate with your loved one, you’re letting them know that it doesn’t matter how long this is going to take, or how involved the treatments are going to be, or the difficulties that accompany the passage from symptom onset to recovery, because you will be there. And this patience has a powerful result; with patience and compassion, comes hope. And when you have depression, hope can be hard to come by. Sometimes supporting someone with depression may feel like you’re walking a tight rope; What do I say? What do I not say? What do I do? What do I not do? But remember that just by being there and asking how you can support can be an incredible gift.
Having depression is exhausting. Even though one’s depression may be well-managed, they may still have very bad days. Good days include a lot of time and energy managing mood, sleep, diet, activity level, and relationships so that they can continue to function.It takes effort, patience, and compassion to love someone with depression. I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s easy. But we deserve love and companionship, too. We need your patience, your compassion, and your love – even more when we’re having a difficult day, week or month. We know it’s hard. We know it’s not fair. But we also love you, value you, and appreciate your support very, very much.
I feel incredibly grateful and blessed to have people in my life who are able to support me in many ways. It may take a tribe to heal; As we stand by one, we stand by all!
** For more infomation on how to support my wellness fundraiser see: https://www.gofundme.com/giselleswellnessfund
Many blessings, Giselle
“Courage does not always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow.’” – Mary Anne Radmacher