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September 24, 2022 — 9:01 AM
Depression is a mental health disorder that needs to be taken seriously. Someone who is depressed cannot “snap out of it” or “shake it off.” It can be really hard to witness a loved one with this condition, and you might wonder if there’s anything you can say to make things better for them. So, we spoke with experts to find out helpful ways to communicate care, concern, and support to someone who is depressed.
Recognizing depression in loved ones.
“Depression is a common mood disorder that can present in varying forms; however, is typically characterized as including persistent sadness, hopelessness, and feelings of worthlessness or guilt,” Allison Forti, Ph.D., LCMHC, NCC, an associate teaching professor and associate director of the Department of Counseling Online Programs at Wake Forest University, tells mbg. “People with depression may experience a loss of interest in hobbies or activities they once enjoyed, may want to sleep more or less than usual, may lose their appetite or eat more than is typical for them, and may have trouble making decisions or concentrating. In some cases of depression, people may start to think more about death and suicide.”
Some people can be chronically depressed, and others can be momentarily depressed. Depression can present in many ways, and your loved one may not have all of the signs or symptoms. According to Forti, you can look for observable changes in their thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and physical presentation.
“You may notice that your loved one, who was once a social butterfly, now cancels plans to meet for dinner, book club, or other events. They may start to wear the same clothes multiple days in a row, not groom as often, or stop wearing make-up,” she explains. “Your loved one may speak slower and seem distracted or irritable. They may stop reaching out to you, calling, or wanting to spend time together.”
How to help a depressed friend.
Research suggests peer support really can help people with depression, and there are indeed helpful ways you can communicate your care, concern, or feelings to someone who is depressed. However, before you take this step, Jennifer Dragonette, Psy.D., the executive director of Newport Academy in Northern California, recommends that you proceed mindfully.
“Sometimes jumping in with advice causes people to pull back,” says Dragonette. “Don’t give unsolicited advice or provide help they didn’t ask for. Validate them without jumping in with your own experience just yet.”
Furthermore, Forti advises to avoid suggesting to a person who is depressed that their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are not valid or can easily change. “They need empathy, compassion, and support. Validating their experience by not sugar coating their pain and recognizing what is happening is a good first step,” Forti tells mbg.
Here are a few suggestions of what to say to someone with depression:
12 things to say to someone who is depressed:
1. “I care about you, and you matter to me.”
People experiencing depression often experience a sense of hopelessness and pessimism that can lead them to lose sight of how much people care about them, Forti explains. A reminder that they matter to you may be helpful.
2. “Would you like to talk?”
Depression can lead to a strong sense of isolation, and your loved one may start to withdraw. According to Forti, engaging them may help remind them people care and offer hope.
3. “Would you like to spend time together?”
If your loved one is up for it, Forti suggests offering to go for a walk, grab a coffee, come over and chat, or whatever they might be interested in. “The point is to make yourself available to them so you can show your support,” she says.
4. “I want to be here for you, but I am not sure how. Can you tell me what you need from me?”
According to GinaMarie Guarino, LMHC, a licensed mental health counselor at Psychpoint, this is something beneficial you can say so as not to assume what the other person needs. You might feel helpless not knowing how you can support your loved one; however, they might be able to provide some kind of guidance regarding small gestures that would make them feel loved.
5. “Would you like help with getting groceries?”
While asking can be a great option, sometimes people experiencing depression may not be able to articulate their needs or how you specifically can help. “Given depression can make everyday tasks seem harder, offering to help with a specific task may be useful and alleviate some of the psychological weight carried,” Forti tells mbg.
6. “I noticed you don’t seem like yourself. Would you like to talk about it?”
Let your loved one know you are observing behavioral changes, and you care enough to talk about it, Forti suggests. Though they may not want to talk about it, they’ll at least know they have a witness in their struggle and that you’re taking the first step of reaching out to them.
7. “We don’t have to talk, but can I sit with you?”
Saying this is a good option if your loved one isn’t open to talking at the moment. Guarino suggests making the gentle offer of simply coming over and sitting in silence. Small gestures such as this can make a world of difference to someone who feels consumed by darkness.
8. “I think you need professional help.”
If it comes to this, let your loved one know you see them struggling and are concerned about their well-being. “Suggesting professional help may feel like permission to seek help, or it may open the door to a discussion about seeking professional help,” says Forti. “Either way it opens the door to opportunities to receive professional help.”
Dragonette suggests that a very simple yet powerful option is just to remind someone who is depressed that you love them. Feeling loved in everyday life is scientifically linked to improved well-being.
10. “I’ve seen you go through hard things before, and I know you can again.”
According to Dragonette, telling your loved one struggling with depression that you’ve noticed their strength during past hardships may be uplifting to them. This is another way of letting them know that they’re not alone on their journey.
11. “It’s okay to be human.”
Remind your loved one that all people are susceptible to depression, even the strongest people. “Depression is not something to be ashamed of,” says Forti. “Our culture is one that contributes to fostering depression. In our society people receive regular messages that they are inadequate, struggle with finding social connections and purpose, worry about economic stability and personal safety, and have increasingly long work hours.” These cultural factors put everyone at risk for depression, even the people you least expect to develop it.
12. “I’m going to keep checking in on you.”
People with depression may not feel like socializing or talking–both may require too much energy at the moment. “Avoid pressuring your loved one to do something that depression is making too hard for them,” says Forti. “However, do let them know you won’t give up on them. Do keep reaching out, even when they reject your attempts for help.”
Keep your efforts simple and non-invasive. A text message stating, “I’m thinking of you” can do wonders for someone feeling alone and sad. Keep letting them know you care.
When to seek a professional.
According to Forti, professional help is beneficial for all levels of depression–mild, moderate, or severe. “Some people with high functioning depression, where they feel depleted, sad, irritable, but are still able to maintain relationships and responsibilities at work and in life, may fly under the radar among close loved ones, who might be unaware of their personal struggles,” Forti explains. “However, moderate to severe depression may become more noticeable.” This occurs when people start to struggle more at work, in relationships, or their daily functioning becomes excessively burdensome.
Someone with moderate to severe depression may also have suicidal ideation. Professional help is especially helpful when someone exhibits signs of suicide risk. “[Risk factors] include seeing a decline in hygiene and self-care in your loved one, seeing your loved one sleep more than usual or struggle with staying present with others, and expressing upsetting thoughts, like ‘what’s the point?’, ‘people would be better off without me’, or ‘I don’t want to do this anymore’,” Guarino tells mbg. “If you are concerned for the immediate safety of your loved one, it is okay to seek professional support. Your loved one may be resistant to help at first, but it is important to take the warning signs of depression seriously.”
A trained mental health provider can listen, offer a supportive relationship to explore concerns, and assist with reaching goals of feeling better.
When you’re depressed, it feels like you’re the only person in the world who’s going through it. “The condition tricks us into believing we’re alone and that no one would understand what we’re going through,” says Dragonette. “The best thing someone with depression can do is the opposite of what their gut and body tells them to do in the moment. Depression tells us we will be a burden. It’s these times we don’t want to listen to that gut feeling, and to reach out for help.”
If someone you love is dealing with depression, remember that you cannot be responsible for their well-being, but that the supportive things you say to them can be beneficial. There are also resources you can share with your loved one.
People struggling with depression and/or having suicidal thoughts can now call 988 to receive free support. “This number provides people access to professional crisis workers that can listen and offer help,” says Forti. “This line is open 24/7 so people struggling have access to a compassionate and trained helper no matter when they need help.”
Information about how to contact the lifeline and resources for finding support can be found here: https://988lifeline.org/. They may also find resources on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) website: https://www.samhsa.gov/.