5 Tips for Helping a Depressed Friend or Loved One

Holding handsWhen someone is depressed, they often struggle to communicate with those closest to them. It can be confusing and at times frustrating to love someone with depression. It’s not always easy to help and give what is needed.

Sadly, the reaction of many people is to say simplistic and dismissive things like, “Just pray more,” “Get more exercise,” or “You just need to think yourself into a better place.” Suggestions and statements such as these undermine the experience of people who are struggling with depression.

Another thing people often do but shouldn’t: compare pain. A person I worked with in therapy once told me her nurse (in a psychiatric hospital) said she should feel happy her problems aren’t more severe. The nurse proceeded to talk about her husband dying and leaving her a widow with two young children to support.

No doubt, there’s good intention lurking beneath some of the things people say to those experiencing depression. Good intention, though, does little to ease pain.

If you’re in a position to help or support a person with depression, here are some positive things you can do:

  1. Ask what you can do to help. The person with depression might say your quiet company would be helpful, or perhaps the person wants a compassionate ear, someone to just listen. Be open and generous. Maybe the person needs a ride to an appointment or someone to pick up a prescription.
  2. If the person is unable to communicate their needs, offer some specific ideas. Ask if the person would like to get out of the house, or if you can come and keep them company. Offer to take the person’s kids for a couple of hours. See if they need something picked up from the store. When people are depressed, sometimes the most basic activities (such as grocery shopping or meal planning) can seem like huge, insurmountable tasks.
  3. Listen without judgment. Don’t mention your aunt Gladys has cancer and is worse off than your friend. Don’t use the phrase, “Well, at least …” Allow your friend to voice any hurt or despair. If you don’t know what to say, simply say, “I love you, and I’m sorry you’re in pain.”
  4. Ask if the person has suicidal thoughts or feelings. This can be extremely hard to do, as it might feel like you’re being invasive. But many people’s lives have been saved because someone had the courage to ask. If the person acknowledges being suicidal, offer to take them to the hospital and/or let the person’s family/therapist/doctor know. Feeling suicidal and being alone is a dangerous combination. Just sitting and being with the person, even if it’s just reading a book or the newspaper while they rest, could mean the world. For more information on helping a person with suicidal ideation, see this recent article.
  5. Love the person. Love the person with words, with touch, with your presence. When people are depressed, it can feel as if no one truly cares about them. Let the person know they matter to you. If appropriate, be specific as to why.

If you have loved ones, family, or friends who seem stumped by how to interact with a depressed person—perhaps even you—consider sharing this article with them. Let them know you understand it’s difficult to know how to handle a person experiencing depression, and that these ideas might be helpful.

Relationships are tricky. Some people are more natural than others at helping people with depression, but everyone is capable of compassion and empathy. If you’re present and available, you’re going a long way toward lending support.

© Copyright 2015 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, therapist in Columbus, Ohio

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Ida

    Ida

    February 23rd, 2015 at 10:14 AM

    I don’t know if offering ideas for things that they could do would be a good idea. Don’t you think that they might think that you are just being a busybody and that you should maybe mind your own business? You know how this kind of think can play with your head so even when you have someone’s best interest at heart they might not be able to see things quite that way.

  • Clever Blonde

    Clever Blonde

    February 28th, 2015 at 6:27 AM

    Please read my story above. These suggestions on this blog are EXACTLY the right thing we should all do. I was taken to emergency for possible suicide several times. I had counselling therapy weekly for 2 yrs. A lot of people turned their back on me but there were many also who simply did not know what to do or did not understand my need to talk, my need to feel loved. I was suddenly alone after 17 yrs and suddenly had no hugs. That mattered BIG TIME. One friend hugged me every time she saw me and she saved my life many times. I’ve since done a suicide prevention course and know this blog advice is supported by experts.

  • ruth

    ruth

    February 23rd, 2015 at 3:38 PM

    The Beatles had a point with All You Need Is Love… well, not really, we do need more than that. But sometimes it is so nice to know that there is a person in our life who wants nothing more than to love us and be loved by us. Kind of comforting, something so simple just like that, and yet so powerful at the same time

  • Clever Blonde

    Clever Blonde

    February 28th, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    Very true. I went through a very difficult marriage breakdown from an abuser. He took our 13 yr child and I had no contact at all nor messages for nearly a year. I got depression and wanted to die many times. My church where I had served in many volunteer positions over 6 yrs giving more than 10 hrs per wk min and up to 20 hrs per wk all turned their back on me. I already knew what real love is because it was why I gave so much. When I was down and out I learned many people don’t know how and are too busy to love.

  • Cam

    Cam

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:41 AM

    I think most of all what we would ask for is that you don’t judge us. Sure, you may have other ways of coping with things, but when you are prone to depression like I am, you just don’t want other people walking around and telling you the best way to handle something would be to do so and so. Look, if I could manage without antidepressants and stuff like that I would do it. I think that it would probably make my life a whole lot easier. But the truth is that I need help and I need understanding, and I don’t need to feel like I am being judged. Thanks

  • Clever Blonde

    Clever Blonde

    February 28th, 2015 at 6:29 AM

    Spot on. Listen not tell….

  • sharon

    sharon

    February 28th, 2015 at 2:23 PM

    Perfect!

  • murray

    murray

    February 24th, 2015 at 10:25 AM

    There are also going to be those times when you have to step back a little.

    I am not talking totally hands off, but you know, give them some space to work through it a little without hovering over them too much.

  • Winnie

    Winnie

    February 24th, 2015 at 3:24 PM

    I understand that we do not want to risk alienating someone but we also can’t miss out on the chance that they could open up to us and express some really scary things. We have to be willing to listen to them and allow them the chance to talk freely and without fear. Let them lean on you when they need to, give them support and offer to do whatever you can to make this time in their lives just a little bit easier. It is very likely that they feel overwhelmed and may not have any idea how to get through this. If you are willing to step up as that friend that they can depend on then that could make a huge difference to someone.

  • sharon

    sharon

    February 28th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    Good for you Winnie and thanks, Sharon

  • Neyla

    Neyla

    February 24th, 2015 at 6:49 PM

    Yes it’s true, antidepressants are both dangerous and ineffective ways of curing depression, yet big pharma keeps encouraging us to swallow more pills.
    I was depressed for a long time and as a young person of only 25 years old it was hard for me to cope.
    Luckily I found natural ways to cure depression that are not harmful to the body and work much better.
    If you want to learn more about the dangers of antidepressants and how to cure depression naturally, you can go here depressioncure.me.pn
    There’s also a self-assessment test you can take to know if you’re depressed

  • Tom P.

    Tom P.

    February 27th, 2015 at 1:36 PM

    Your comment about antidepressants being dangerous and ineffective is completely ludacris. Many antidepressants have helped relieve patient symptoms by almost 80 percent and in some cases have saved lives. If they didn’t work for you that’s unfortunate but don’t go around making generalized statements that they don’t work for everyone and that they are dangerous.

  • Tia

    Tia

    February 25th, 2015 at 3:36 AM

    I am so glad that you found some natural remedies that helped you… but if there is something that is pharmaceutic ally produced that is helping another, then let’s just say that this is what works for them and you have what works for you and let’s be okay with that.

  • missmolly

    missmolly

    February 25th, 2015 at 11:24 AM

    We are all adults, we know what it means to be a friend… and when you have one in need that is the time to put pettiness aside and be that type of friend

  • Sandra T

    Sandra T

    February 28th, 2015 at 1:47 AM

    It just sucks you down and leaves you with no defenses. You just watch and let people do terrible things to you.You try to fight it on the inside but not outward toward the person. You really don’t understand what this is either. The person I loved most just deserted me.Never even tried to understand or wonder why I was not myself.I really thought I had finally found real love.But he just left me.Now I had depression and heartbreak to deal with. But I got help and it took over a year before I felt the sunshine on my face again. Please just let your love one know that they matter and you love them.Ask them if they need to talk. Let them know you will do whatever they need you to do.The most important is to let them know that they need to be here with you because they do matter.And please everyone when you start sliding into that hole and feel all wrong in the world don’t try to self-medicate with alcohol like I did just to try to keep functioning in the outside world. I lost a lot of the 80’s to this disease.Get help you can’t do it alone.
    .

  • emipie

    emipie

    February 28th, 2015 at 4:26 AM

    As a person with clinical depression you do and you don’t want help. You push it away a lot of times because you don’t feel worthy of it. Your family members want to help you but really can’t. And the “they they they” in the comments. We are not another species. We are just horrible people to care about because of the previous things that I have expressed.

  • Yolanda

    Yolanda

    February 28th, 2015 at 9:19 AM

    To tell you the truth there are times when I become very hesitant to say something to a friend in need, even when I know that they are, because i get so scared that I am going to say the wrong thing. I know that it is not any better to say absolutely nothing at all, but I don’t know, it just scares me. I would rather that they ask someone else for help. That’s terrible and I know that, but I think that they will need someone strong to get them through something like this and I am never sure that I am that strong person.

  • anne

    anne

    February 28th, 2015 at 12:44 PM

    A lot of times – for me anyway – it’s just knowing someone is there and truly cares about you and how you feel. For the most part we understand how difficult we are to befriend but a true friend doesn’t have to say anything except maybe remind that they ARE there for us and DO care. Like the saying says: ‘Actions speak louder than words’. Sometimes just knowing, being reaffirmed that we are not alone helps more than one will ever know… God bless 🐨 💜

  • sharon

    sharon

    February 28th, 2015 at 2:25 PM

    Send a note…

  • abigail

    abigail

    March 1st, 2015 at 9:35 AM

    Yolanda, as someone who struggles with depression and also has friends who struggle, I very much understand that not every person is able to help the same way. Sometimes, listening to another’s depressed thinking can trigger similar thoughts in one’s own mind. Also, people with depression generally don’t want to be a burden. It’s okay to be a more distant friend. Not every one can handle hours of depressed talk. And it doesn’t mean you are a weak person. It means that you have to take care of yourself, too, which is not easy.

  • Lacy

    Lacy

    February 28th, 2015 at 11:13 AM

    Unconditional loving to a depressed person is very vital. Doing a small act of love and appreciation even without any course lifts the spirit of the affected person more than anyone can imagine but most importantly, learning various needs of a depressed person will easily help in knowing how to meet them appropriately without triggering more depression.

  • sharon

    sharon

    February 28th, 2015 at 2:22 PM

    How can I ‘share’ this article on Facebook. It is an amazingly wonderful article. Concise and greAt information. Must have been written by a fellow sufferer. Oooh hate to have used that word.

  • Kathy

    Kathy

    February 28th, 2015 at 4:10 PM

    My outlook is that one other thing that would be helpful is when someone wants to step up and help a friend or loved one through this horrible time, is to be real. Just be yourself. This person needs compassion,empathy and someone to just listen. Its a very scarey place where this person is at in their head at that point. Please be kind,gentle and give your undivided attention to this person.It is really really important that you are there for them 100%.

  • anonymous

    anonymous

    April 13th, 2015 at 11:07 AM

    Hi from a adult who grew up with a depressed parent I’m exhausted and fed up of the constant negative its consistent not all day everyday but it is definitely a constant and my way with dealing with it is I just listen and deep breathe lool…. And then I let it pass change the subject and try to distract

    Its very hard to understand someone who is stuck in that cycle of sadness that it even effects them physically but all u need is love and unconditional love

    Yes there will be days when u will just argue or fight with Ur loved one Cuz u just want to slap the depression out of them…but I can only imagine they feel the same

    Empathy compassion love and patience in truck loads..

    And positive if u have happy to spare then share that with them make em laugh be silly don’t take itself to serious I do it in the hope it will rub off on my parent eventually.

    Keep soldiering and one day at a time and that for all those who are trying to support a loved one with depression or mental illness.

    Xx

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    April 13th, 2015 at 3:07 PM

    All of this sounds good but it’s not always simple. My father wasn’t a depressed person all his life but he changed over a year and a half until he took his own life. It’s hard because even if I had read this a year before he died, I wouldn’t have thought of him. Now that I look back and have spent hours analyzing the weeks before he died, I can see the signs. If your loved one has changed, has become irritable, or has gone thru life changes (like retirement), treat them as though they are depressed and follow the advice above. I wish I could’ve had it spelled out for me.

  • Kal

    Kal

    April 14th, 2015 at 3:19 AM

    For anyone suffering from depression, I recommend the Destroy Depression system. Written by James Gordon, a former depression & PTSD sufferer, it teaches 7 natural steps which help to eliminate depression from your life.

  • christy

    christy

    April 15th, 2015 at 1:12 AM

    How cab u alleviate depression when you can’t escape the cause of it, alcoholics are toxic and living with one can make a person who was fairly content, change completely. And how does one not be depressed when they live with abuse

  • The GoodTherapy.org Team

    The GoodTherapy.org Team

    April 15th, 2015 at 9:22 AM

    Thank you for your comment, Christy. We wanted to provide links to some resources that may be relevant to you here. We have more information about domestic violence at https://www.goodtherapy.org/therapy-for-domestic-violence.html and additional information about what to do in a crisis at https://www.goodtherapy.org/in-crisis.html

    Warm regards,
    The GoodTherapy.org Team

  • Anonymous

    Anonymous

    May 6th, 2015 at 2:30 PM

    as someone watching their loved one be consumed by this horrible illness it’s very difficult to do and be all the things required to help. I’ve never felt qualified to deal with the illness and we just go day-to-day, hoping we’ll both get through another night. I try as best I can to help my loved one through but find it difficult when there’s nobody to help me. I’m not sure this is the right forum but are there any support groups for people like me, someone who’s loved one is falling apart before their eyes and you can’t stop it?

  • Val

    Val

    May 8th, 2015 at 6:29 PM

    Find your local NAMI. They can offer help and understanding.

  • Joanna

    Joanna

    July 9th, 2015 at 3:49 PM

    Helpful article to read with good suggestions to follow when you want to help a person who is depressed.

  • Lily

    Lily

    August 14th, 2015 at 12:47 PM

    Well written article, Jenise! Thanks for sharing these tips with us—they’ve been very helpful! I think it’s absolutely important that we’re helping our depressed loved ones. I think you’ve mentioned a very valuable piece of information: you need to ask the depressed person how you can help. I’ll keep these in mind for when I come across a friend in need!

  • CindyH

    CindyH

    November 23rd, 2015 at 1:10 PM

    as someone who suffers from depression that is controlled by antidepressants, I know sometimes depressed people find it hard to believe it when told that you love them. whether it is feeling unworthy or the disease telling them that person can not be telling the truth and as a family member it can be hard when the depressed person rejects your love for them and says things like no one or only this preson really loves me. It is a time to realise that it is the disease talking, and the distortted view of reality depression can give you. I feel everyone suffering from the disease of depression should seek medical advice as to the treatment which would work best for them, drug or therapy or whatever would work for that individual. Like any other medical illness it needs to be treated, and during that treatment support and love is needed.
    I suffered and still have to fight the disease but it is so hard to watch much loved family members suffer and not feel you can really help no matter what you try. To all who are suffering from depression I want to say I love you and wish you all health and happiness! please don’t give up, it is possible!

  • john

    john

    November 23rd, 2015 at 2:24 PM

    johnny boy is here

  • James

    James

    February 1st, 2016 at 7:58 AM

    Thanks for your post. My sister-in-law has been struggling with depression and I haven’t really known what to do. Since she is going to college a couple of miles from where my wife and I live we often invite her over so that she can relax with us. However, I feel like I am walking on egg shells around her. I want to help, but am scared of making things worse. I’ll try asking her what she would like from me when she is visiting. Thanks.

  • Lolalove

    Lolalove

    May 12th, 2016 at 10:11 AM

    I did all of the above. I tried to support, I tried to give space. I did my best . Unfortunately, my best was not good enough and I had to inform about the suicide ideation …including a plan. Me doing this cost me a friendship and has changed my life. I am trying to forgive myself for what feels like a betrayal but I hope it helped in some way. My point is that you take you may someday have to take a risk at the expense of a relationship but know that in the end it will be worth it for the one you love is still alive.

  • Nathan J

    Nathan J

    June 2nd, 2016 at 10:37 AM

    I have a friend who has been slowly getting more depressed. I really care about this person, but it is hard to know exactly what to do. Thanks for sharing these ideas on how to support a friend with depression. I like that you talk about listening without judgment. I think that is great because often times, people just need to talk things out. Thanks for sharing!

  • Judy W

    Judy W

    June 6th, 2016 at 12:49 PM

    My husband suffers from depression, so I feel that I should do more to help him through it. I liked what you said about listening to him without judgement. He seems more withdrawn, so allowing him to have the chance to talk without judging him would probably do some good. You’re right about how I should ask about his thoughts and feelings. It seems that talking about whether he’s feeling suicidal can help him to feel like he’s not alone that that I’m always there for him. Thanks for the tips!

  • Justin K

    Justin K

    July 12th, 2016 at 6:37 AM

    Thank you for the help. I am trying to help a friend that has been struggling with depression. I like the idea offering specific ideas of ways to help, as you discussed. I think that could open up communication a lot more. How can I be sure that I am not overstepping?

  • Joel E.

    Joel E.

    October 15th, 2016 at 11:21 AM

    The way a person writes and draws indicate their state of mind.
    If these nuances are present at various times, this signals this is the person’s usual state of mind.

    Traits that indicate depression:
    • When the capital letter of the person’s given name is pierced
    • Very light writing
    • Descending base line
    • Drawing clouds; very faint lines
    • When asked to draw a person: the feet and legs are drawn first;
    • A narrow neck; arms omitted

    If none of the above appears, no depression exists.

    Joel Engel is the author of Learn Graphology; Handwriting Analysis Self-Taught (Penguin Books)
    learngraphology.com

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