How to Help Someone with Depression

Letting go of day's tensions, watching the sunsetAn estimated one in 10 adults in the United States reports currently experiencing depression, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The World Health Organization estimates that 350 million people are affected globally. If you have a friend or loved one whom you suspect may be battling depression, there are a number of things you can do to help.

But first, let’s start with what not to do:

Don’t Minimize

Most people have experienced a case of “the blues” at one time or another. Whether caused by heartbreak, loss, or for seemingly no reason at all, symptoms may include decreased energy, sadness, or a general “down in the dumps” feeling. Clinical depression can mirror these symptoms to a significantly higher degree of severity, so it is crucial to recognize the difference.

A reactive depression in response to a crisis or simply to a change in external circumstances is often to be expected. The sadness one experiences from time to time under such conditions will generally not interfere with the functioning of daily living and will pass fairly quickly in time. Clinical depression, on the other hand, is not so simple. It is not something someone can simply “snap out of,” and telling someone to “cheer up,” or that “it’s not as bad as it seems,” is not helpful.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) describes symptoms of a depressive disorder as persisting for more than two weeks with a significant impairment in daily functioning. Symptoms may include persistent feelings of worthlessness and suicide ideation. If someone expresses thoughts about wanting to hurt themselves or exhibits any other risk factors for suicide, take the person seriously. A large percentage of those who committed suicide told someone of their intentions, so such expressions should not be minimized. Other risk factors for suicide can be found on the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention website, which warns not to preach with remarks such as, “You have so much to live for,” or, “Your suicide will hurt your family.”

Don’t Stigmatize

Take an honest assessment of your thoughts and views on depression. Do you question its legitimacy? Do you question whether it is an issue at all, or simply a weakness that can be overcome if only the person was stronger? If this is the case, please read on.

Depression has nothing to do with strength or weakness of character, any more so than cancer or any other physical ailment. Studies have shown that stigma is one of the primary obstacles in one’s likelihood of reaching out for help. By taking steps to reduce stigma, you are helping in many ways.

Depression has nothing to do with strength or weakness of character, any more so than cancer or any other physical ailment. Studies have shown that stigma is one of the primary obstacles in one’s likelihood of reaching out for help. By taking steps to reduce stigma, you are helping in many ways.

Now for what you can and should do:

Legitimize

Estimates place the risk of suicide among those with major depression at about 3.4%. If someone you care about expresses thoughts of hurting themselves, please take these seriously.

According to Stella Padnos-Shea, social worker and volunteer with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, depression is one of the most frequently cited risk factors for suicide. If you suspect that someone is at risk of suicide, it is crucial that you take action. You can escort the person to your local emergency room or call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Get Educated

One of the best things you can do to help your loved one is educate yourself about what clinical depression is. According to the DSM-5, certain criteria must be met in order for a person to be diagnosed with a depressive disorder. These are signs that you want to look for in the person you are concerned about. They include a depressed or irritable mood for much of the day, nearly every day, for more than two weeks; changes in weight, sleep, and/or appetite; difficulty concentrating; decreased energy; and decreased interest in activities that once seemed pleasurable.

Psychiatrist David D. Burns, author of Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy (an excellent resource for anyone who would like to better understand depression), describes one of the primary indicators of someone experiencing a clinical depressive episode is the pervasiveness of symptoms and distortion of thoughts and self-image. Keep in mind the words “pervasive” and “distorted.” Unless someone has experienced clinical depression, it is very difficult to fully appreciate and understand what it feels like and how debilitating it can be.

Imagine walking around wearing a pair of dark glasses; everywhere you turn, everything looks dark. This is where the distortion comes in. Those around you may try to convince you that what you are seeing is not accurate, and may even point out the beauty and the colors around you, but wearing those lenses, it’s impossible to see. When you are depressed, your perception of the world is often so clouded that it is almost impossible to see the positive in anything or even to recall that there were good times.

Be Prepared

Although most will not seek help unless they are ready and encouraged, it would be helpful to have a list of possible referrals to offer. When someone is in the throes of clinical depression, the idea of researching and seeking professional help could seem like a herculean task, especially with all the changes in managed care. You would be removing a huge obstacle in having a few resources available to hand over.

Sites such as GoodTherapy.org can be excellent sources for finding a mental health provider. If insurance will be used, you can call the insurance company for a list of preferred providers.

Be There

According to Padnos-Shea, one of the most important things you can do for someone you believe is experiencing clinical depression is to be there for the person and to let them know you are there. It is not uncommon for friends and family to avoid a depressed loved one—not out of any malice, but rather as a result of feeling impotent or not knowing what to do. The worst thing you can do for a depressed person is to abandon them. This only reinforces the false belief they are alone in a world where no one cares. Your loved one may push you away and isolate. This is common in depressed individuals. Regardless, be sure to let the person know in no uncertain terms that, when and if they are ready to reach out, you will be there.

It is important to note that a majority of people diagnosed with mental health issues, including depression, do not end up attempting or committing suicide. Despite the statistics mentioned above, the vast majority of those who experience clinical depression will improve with treatment. The determining factors in recovery include whether they choose to get professional help and the support they have in their lives. So, know that your support and your presence can absolutely make a difference.

References:

  1. Current depression among adults – United States, 2006 and 2008. (2010, October 1). Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/mm5938a2.htm?s_cid=mm5938a2_e%0d%0a
  2. Depression fact sheet. (2012). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en
  3. Lifetime suicide risk in major depression: Sex and age determinants. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10628886

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Allison Abrams, LCSW-R, therapist in New York City, New York

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.

  • 25 comments
  • Leave a Comment
  • Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    Catherine Boyer, MA, LCSW

    August 1st, 2014 at 7:20 AM

    What an excellent article about an important subject.

    The only thing I’d add – which is likely covered in one or more of the links the author suggested – is for friends and family to understand the physicality of depression. This is especially important for those who believe “it’s all in your head.”

    Depression can be very physically painful – muscles, joint, back, etc. Problems with sleep, digestion, and headaches often occur with depression. Debilitating fatigue is common (more than just that caused by lack of sleep). A description my clients have found helpful is, “trying to live your life with depression is like walking through water.”

    Depression is very much in the body. It can be easier to empathize when that is understood.

  • Andy H.

    Andy H.

    August 2nd, 2014 at 11:23 AM

    wonderful comment. In my experience, if you feel depression in the body, bring all awareness to physical discomfort, and ask what have you come to share, it will share its story and reveal what it needs.andy.
    Guidedselfhealing.org

  • mike

    mike

    September 17th, 2017 at 5:39 AM

    THE VERY LAST THING ANYONE SHOULD SAY ISPULL YOURSELF TOGETHER

  • Porter

    Porter

    August 1st, 2014 at 10:10 AM

    Showing someone who is struggling with the symptoms of depression that you care instead of making them feel mariginalized is an excellent way to make them understand that you are there for them. You may not understand how they are feeling or know the exact things to do but by showing them that you care about them and that you are willing to do whatever it takes to help them not feel so alone can go a long way toward helping them in their recovery process. Above all be patient and be kind because this is not something that they asked for nor is it something that they can easily change.

  • Nancy

    Nancy

    August 2nd, 2014 at 5:06 AM

    Education is the key to better understanding and better treatment.
    Once you know more about what you are dealing with then it is much easier to look at them as a person and not just the disease.

  • Andy H.

    Andy H.

    August 2nd, 2014 at 11:20 AM

    great article. In my experience, both professionally and personally, being there is the key, especially being there with no judgmentalism, no expectations and full acceptance. Thanks, andy
    Guidedselfhealing.org

  • Jason

    Jason

    August 2nd, 2014 at 1:16 PM

    I agree that it can be a great idea to have thoughts for who your friend can go to for more help if and when they are ready. Now that’s the thing- you can’t force it on them, they have to be ready and willing to go after that help and do what they need to do on their end to be open to receiving help. But it would be nice when they ARE ready to have some referrals available for them so that they don’t feel like they have to do everything themselves. It’s just nice to have already had domeone to do a little of the legwork for you when you are already at the point of feeling a little overwhelmed.

  • gemma

    gemma

    August 4th, 2014 at 4:11 AM

    How about finding them someone that they can talk to like a good therapist? We can be pretty limited in what we can do on our own but with the help of someone trained in this field of helping those who are depressed, someone could be feeling better very soon if they have the right person in their corner.

  • Greg

    Greg

    August 5th, 2014 at 10:32 AM

    I would love to hear your thoughts on those who always seem to be crying out for help but then when you make some suggestions about what they could do to seek treatment or improve their lives then they don’t want to hear that. I don’t like those who are not willing to pull themselves up and I know that depression is far more serious than that but at the same time I would love to know that there is some real effort there being made on their part too. I don’t know if this is wrong of me to think this way but I have always been taught that you can’t be helped if you are not somewhat willing to help yourself. Thoughts on that?

  • Allison Abrams, LCSW

    Allison Abrams, LCSW

    August 5th, 2014 at 1:47 PM

    Catherine, thank you for adding the piece about the physical effects of depression and for the wonderful and descriptive analogy: “trying to live your life with depression is like walking through water.” Greg, you’re right, there is only so much you can do to help someone who is unwilling to help themselves, and I see how this can be frustrating. As to whether your thought of someone being able to “pull themselves up” is wrong or not, I cannot say, but perhaps Catherine’s analogy, as well as reading up on the disease, can help you understand it better and allay some of the frustration that comes from watching someone you care for suffer and not acccept your help. There is only so much you can do if they are not ready, but what you can do is be there for them when they are.

  • Ann M

    Ann M

    August 5th, 2014 at 4:25 PM

    What do you do with a person who knows they have depression but has a hard time remembering to take the meds and follow the suggestions? Said person has so much going on they are trying to keep up with- that is the person’s reason for forgetting. Said person also takes everything almost as an attack. The spouse does not share the bed and offers little to no words of affirmation so there is doubt that love exists (so the person says). There is more that is said about the martial relationship but it would be to numerous to list. How can the depressed person make improvements?

  • Joyce

    Joyce

    August 11th, 2014 at 8:06 PM

    Too bad that the system everyone keeps saying to get help from is broken. It’s run by the insurance companies and the system’s solution is to lock your friend or loved one away, but only until they say they are okay. Meds don’t help everyone. The most important thing is that you be there for the person suffering. Not just when it is convenient for you. But really be there. Are you willing to leave work and risk your job for this person? Are you willing to get a sitter for the kids for this person? Are you willing to do for this person what they really need you to do or are you only willing to do what you think they need? There are no easy answers and people die while you are waiting for them to change or to reach out. Don’t pawn it off on a broken system. Do what needs to be done. It may cost you time, MONEY, sleep, energy, lost meals and any number of other things. Are you willing? Most people aren’t. They give up and people die.

  • Defying Mental Illness

    Defying Mental Illness

    August 22nd, 2014 at 8:07 PM

    What an excellent and educational article. Very recommended read. When people don’t understand depeession they can’t help someone who is depressed. This article dispels a lot of myth surrounding depression

  • Becky

    Becky

    September 9th, 2014 at 3:25 PM

    In response to Greg – My youngest brother (now 50) has struggled with depression since he was a teen. Moves from job to job and city to city trying to find the geographical cure I guess. We have a close relationship and he can divulge his feelings with me, but he is adamantly against seeking medical treatment. My family is close, but many don’t want to be around him because of the constant negativity. I do worry about him, but I don’t know what to do. I have suggested everything I can think of, but he needs more.

  • Anita

    Anita

    February 2nd, 2015 at 10:04 AM

    My 23 year old daughter has been suffering from depression for about 3 years now. She refuses to seek any kind of help. She cries all the time, says she’s ugly, she doesn’t want to live and she hates life. We went to counseling once but she never went back. Since she is grown there isn’t much I can make her do. I’ve given her suicide hotline phone numbers, therapy phone numbers, counseling and Drs. phone numbers. She did get a prescription which I had filled but she doesn’t take it. Says she doesn’t want to be on crazy medicine all her life. I try to tell her it may not be a lifetime of medication but she hears nothing I’m saying. Every positive thing I tell her she has something negative to say. I don’t know what to do. She has body aches, doesn’t sleep and hardly eat. Can someone please help. I don’t know what else to do

  • CJ

    CJ

    February 10th, 2015 at 6:15 PM

    Anita, I have been diagnosed with moderate to severe depression 10 years ago. I started medication right away because I had nothing to lose. Not only did it save my life but I have joy and happiness. I have been able to study and reflect on my depression. I think I have had depression all my life due to several things. There are many pieces to the puzzle of depression and I am thankful to be able to have the mindset to figure this out. I also am able to help other people with depression when the topic comes up and an instant connection is there and I feel good that I am able to help others not because of a degree but because of experience which I believe is just as good if not better. CJ

  • Anita

    Anita

    February 21st, 2015 at 7:34 PM

    C j how long were you on medication. I know everyone is different but my daughter refuse to take medication thinking she will be on medicine all of her life so she doesn’t want to start

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    February 5th, 2015 at 7:03 AM

    What if your loved one pushes you away and wants nothing to do you?

  • John

    John

    February 11th, 2015 at 1:54 AM

    If you are pushed away, please don’t give up. I’ve had depression for a long time. Still be there for the one’s you love. Don’t hover over them because that person needs space at that moment, but don’t leave them. If you hover that person isn’t going to seek you. Stay in the back ground ready to help. It’s going to be hard to recognise, but there will be a moment when that person is ready for love and suport. When the moment comes, don’t try to fix the problom for them. Just show lots of empathy. That person is going to need to fix and come to conclusions on there own. This is going to be hard for you because all you want to do is be there for the one you love. I’m not a professional and this is only a opinion from someone who has had depression. I’m sure everyone is different. I hope this helps.

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    February 13th, 2015 at 4:04 AM

    Thank you John for responding to my question… but I have a lot more… I just figured out the man I’m madly in love is possibly depressed. He never told me and right now the story is too long to get into… but he broke up with me 4 months ago. I was completely blindsided by the break up. Through many conversations we had after the break up I’ve learned that he’s let his life fall apart and he’s now trying to focus on how to put his life together again without me. He has no job, no apt, no money, no car. He admitted to me he had been dealing with past issues he never got over (not being in kids life after his marriage failed) and how because he has been having such a hard time dealing with his issues he allowed his life to fall apart. He keeps telling me to be happy and find someone else that’s better than him. He told me last week to live my life to the fullest and not worry about him. I honestly don’t know how to live without him. my questions are should I not be angry that he kept his depression from me? We were together for over 2 years and I was hoping we had a future…. Shouldn’t he had told me what he was dealing with before his life completely fell apart and now wants to only focus on getting himself together instead of us working through these issues together? 4 months later.. I’m still heartbroken…

  • Allana

    Allana

    February 19th, 2015 at 10:24 PM

    Don’t be mad at him for not sharing his depression, I have struggled with depression for many years and it is very hard to admit that it’s there. For many reasons that wouldn’t make much sense to someone who has never experienced depression or anxiety before. (not to say you haven’t because I don’t know) if you love him like you say you do don’t give up on him! Just make sure he knows that you’re always there for him in any way you can. No matter what, and when the opportunity arises prove it. He likely feels undeserving.

  • suzanne

    suzanne

    February 19th, 2015 at 10:03 PM

    i have personal experience dealing with a close relationship where the person was depressed for over two years. what i found most helpful was the recognition that he was unable to meet the needs i normally wanted him to meet. this helped me seek out other ways to support myself so that i could be there for him without resentment or demands that he be different when he was in the worst of it.

    empathy, compassion and responsibility for oneself is absolutely key in accompanying a loved one who is suffering from depression.

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    February 21st, 2015 at 12:00 PM

    I just want to express gratitude for all the responses… Allana, I do love him but it’s going on 5 months and I don’t know what to do considering he’s shut me out of his life. I was really hurt and angry when we broke up. I expressed all those emotions to him because I thought he just didn’t want me anymore. A couple of weeks ago he suffered from a ruptured Achilles. God help me realize he may be going through a deep depression. So I went online and read about others with deep depression and how they ended relationships just like my boyfriend did. I decided to put my anger to the side and text him letting him know I’m here whenever he needs me. That same day he told me he had just had surgery on his ankle. For the next several days, I let him know how much he means to me and asked him several times how can I help. I noticed in those days he kept his responses very short. A few days after his surgery, he responded saying I treated him really good and if I really want to make him happy don’t worry about him and “live my life to the fullest”. I told him I will but I’m still here for him. He once was my world. We were the best of friends and in 5 months he’s completely pushed me out of his life. Allana I’m sorry you’ve battled depression. I’ve dealt with it myself but I’m also learning there’s different levels of depression. I’m realizing maybe he’s been hiding how depressed he really was. However, I just don’t know how to be there for him when he’s told me to basically leave him alone. I don’t want to keep contacting him and getting my feelings hurt.I’m completely devastated because I didn’t realize how much he was hurting (even though I could tell he was dealing with something and I was there for him whenever he needed me) Everyday I wake up and I’m in complete disbelief that our lives are a completely opposite of what it was 5 months ago. I honestly didn’t see us ever separating like this. It hurts me deeply that he doesn’t want me to do anything to help him. I don’t know what else to do but to give up. It just seems like for my own sanity I should leave him alone. I’m crying as I type this because it feels like someone I love has died.

  • Anita

    Anita

    February 21st, 2015 at 7:29 PM

    Lucy I know how you feel. My daughter wants no help from me so I just let her know I’m here if she ever needs me. I feel too like my loved one has died. I want so badly to have my daughter back . Just last night she was in her room crying her eyes out. It hurt me to hear her but everytime i try to comfort her she just tells me to get out so I just leave

  • Lucy

    Lucy

    February 22nd, 2015 at 12:30 PM

    Anita… I’m so sorry. That has to be extremely difficult. I’ve considered going to a support group but haven’t mustered up the courage. Do you have any support?

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of GoodTherapy.org's Terms and Conditions of Use.

* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.