by Zara Mohammed, Relationships Columnist
Published in Relationships on 24th July, 2018
Depression is a horrible illness to experience, not only for the person suffering from it, but also for the people like you, who love and care about them. It's hard to see someone you care about suffer, and it can be tricky if you haven't experienced depression yourself to know how to offer the right kind of support.
The effects of depression are often under-estimated by people who haven't been through it. It can be difficult to understand why someone can't just snap out of it. You might find yourself feeling increasingly frustrated, both with yourself and with the person you want to support. The only way you can really offer your support is to try your best to understand what depression is, and what it feels like to be depressed.
Depression is a serious condition, which affects a person's ability to function normally. It drains energy leaving no room for self-motivation. It affects that person's ability to be optimistic about life, and an overwhelming sense of negativity looms like a dark cloud, casting a dark shadow over everything. There is no reasoning with a person suffering from this illness, and pretty much anything you try to say to make them feel better can be perceived as patronising.
The only way you can deal with how it feels to have your help fall on deaf ears is to understand and remind yourself that it is not personal. It's easy to feel like someone you know who might be going through this is just being self-absorbed and selfish. Just remember that it's not their fault, and they are probably experiencing huge levels of guilt and self-loathing already.
Try to remember that they do not choose to feel the way that they feel, nor do they want to behave in the way that they are - in the same way that a person who has temporarily lost the function of their legs doesn't choose not to walk.
It is common to feel utterly helpless when you know someone who is suffering from depression, and that can lead to a lot of frustration. Everything you suggest gets contradicted or ignored. You can see the seemingly simple solutions, but this person seems to appear blind to your suggestions and reasoning. It can feel like there is nothing you can do to help them.
In fact, the best way to help a person with depression is not to think you can "fix" their "problem". The more you try to fix it the more resistance you will experience from them, and you may be making their experience worse. All they need from you right now is a bit of time and space. But more importantly, they need to know that you "get it", and that you aren't judging them. They are probably placing enough pressure and expectation upon themselves as it is, without having to feeling stressed about you piling on even more, even if it's not what you intend.
At the same time it is important not to totally turn a blind eye. If you pretend that there isn't a problem at all, you will effectively turn yourself into an "enabler", which gives the person an excuse to eventually give in to their illness and suffering, rather than face up to the reality of the situation and seek proper professional help early on.
Often people don't know they are suffering from depression in the beginning. There is a lot of stigma attached to the condition and it can be difficult for a person to accept or recognise the symptoms. It isn't unusual for a close friend, family member or work colleague to notice the symptoms before the actual person suffering the condition does.
One of the most common signs that someone might be experiencing depression is if they appear to be losing interest in their life and everything in it. Losing interest in doing the things they normally enjoy doing is the first step towards withdrawing from society. The world becomes too much to cope with and all they want to do is shut it out, so perhaps they stop talking to people, and perhaps they are becoming more and more reluctant to leave the house or take part in social occasions.
If you notice someone is losing interest in their work, study, hobbies, sex, going out and anything else that people would normally find enjoyable, these are sure warning signs. Another recognisable side effect of depression is being overemotional or sad and having a bleak outlook on life. Having a short fuse is also a common tell tale sign. Look out for the person displaying moody, irritable or critical behaviour, or having a short temper.
Another sign to look out for is complaint. If you feel like someone is complaining about things more than usual, especially of physical ailments such as headaches, back pain or stomach problems, or even just complaining that they feel drained and can't help but feel tired all of the time but don't know why, try to be more observant of their other behaviours. Are they sleeping more than usual? Are they late for work more often? Do they seem like they are not quite as "together" as they usually are? Perhaps they appear to be more disorganised, forgetful or indecisive?
Watch also for changes in health. If they have gained or lost weight, it could be due to overeating or experiencing a loss of appetite, both of which are signs of depression when observed amongst the other things you have noticed. Wanting to "disappear" and not deal with life or how they are feeling could also lead to drinking more, or even taking drugs to "escape", like painkillers and sleeping pills for instance.
Thinking of what to say to console, help or motivate someone who is suffering from depression can seem like a minefield. So many of the things you want to say will sound cliched, empty or pointless. You might not know if what you are saying is useful. But actually the most useful thing you can offer is your ear.
Forget about giving advice. When a person is depressed, it is easy for them to take things the wrong way because they are feeling extra sensitive, self critical, negative and mostly unreceptive. Your good intentions and advice could easily be taken as judgements, which will only result in them closing up. Listening to them talking about what they are going through though, and responding with compassion, resisting the urge to try and resolve their problems, will feel much more supportive and comforting to them. All anybody with depression wants is for someone else to relate to or understand what they are going through, and not blame them for not being able to do all of the things they should be able to do.
If you want to approach someone you think might be suffering, tell them that you have noticed a few changes in them recently, and you were wondering how they are feeling and if they are okay. The less you say about what you think, the more likely they are to open up to you, which is essentially what you want. Opening up about what they are experiencing is the first step towards getting the help they need.
Let them know that they are not alone, and that you are always there to talk if they need to. If you don't fully understand what they are going through, be honest and tell them that you don't get it, but you want to! Tell them that you want to see them feel better again and ask them what you can do to help. Make sure they know how important they are to you. Depression is dangerous and it can lead to suicidal thoughts and actions, so let them know that their life is important to you, it could make them think twice before doing something they can't take back.
There are also things you should always avoid saying to someone who is suffering from depression, because they don't help, and they can make things worse. Don't tell them to look on the bright side, or that everyone feels down at some point in their lives. Don't express your frustration or ridicule by telling them that they should be over it by now, or that it's all in their head and they need to snap out of it. In the worst case scenario, if the person is expressing suicidal thoughts or as tried to take their life, there is no point in asking them why they did it or why they want to, and then trying to convince them that they have so much to live for. This is not how they are feeling, and nothing you say will change that right now.
There is nothing wrong with telling someone you are concerned about his or her health and wellbeing, and try to encourage them to see their doctor. It could be one of the best things you do for them. Sometimes only a stranger can help to change the way a person with depression is feeling. They may need a professional to help them understand what they are going through, before they can accept help from friends and family.
Talking to a doctor about something so sensitive can be scary though, so don't expect them to jump on the idea immediately. Suggest they have a think about it or do some research about depression online, and make sure they know that you are there for them if they want your support when going to see the doctor. Having someone you trust come with you to face something daunting can make all the difference.