How to help a depressed loved one

6 April 2016
5 minute read


Living with depression is undeniably hard, but it is also difficult for the friends and families of those living with depression. While there is a lot of information about how to live with and treat depression, less support is provided for those who care for someone with this debilitating condition.

We contacted the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) to find out more about the right things to do and the wrong things to do if a loved one is living with depression. Here is what Candice Cowen, a clinical psychologist practicing in Sandton, suggests you should do to take care of not only your loved one, but also yourself:

Taking care of your loved oneAccept that dealing with depression is a shared responsibility
Families often treat mental illness as the individual’s problem, but in fact, all the family members should be involved in providing support. Depression affects the individual’s abilities to deliver on their obligations or perform their duties. This affects everyone around them. By taking joint ownership of the process, the family and the sufferer won’t feel so isolated.

Make an effort to learn about and understand depression
One of the most important aspects of helping someone who is suffering from depression is understanding their condition. If it is a situational depression – based on circumstances like a death or stress – the treatment or outcomes will different from if it is clinical depression – which is an actual alteration in the brain chemicals responsible for mood. 

Read up on depression and try to understand what the family member is going through. If they are willing, go along with them to a therapist appointment or group session to gain an insight into their experiences.

Keep communicating
While people suffering from depression often want to be left alone, it is vital that you keep communicating with them. Make sure that they understand that they can let you know how they are feeling or what they need, but also make it clear to them that you will tell them how their actions make you feel.

As difficult as it can be, try not to make them feel guilty or anxious about their own feelings or how they are affecting the people around them, and don’t be demanding of them if they don’t want to speak – simply do your best to keep the lines open so that messages can be transmitted.

Adjust your expectations

It is important to remember that depression is a medical condition and that people can’t just “snap out of it”

It is important to remember that depression is a medical condition and that people can’t just “snap out of it” whenever they feel like it. When someone is suffering from a bad cycle of depression (there are usually peaks and troughs in the condition), be sympathetic and gentle and don’t place too much pressure on them. However...

Don’t disempower the sufferer
While it’s important to support a depressed person and to avoid overloading them in the bad times, it’s equally important not to disempower them. This can lead to them feeling incapable or useless (common problems with depression) and can prevent them from ever taking responsibility for their lives and condition.

It’s a very fine balance to strike – providing support while still encouraging independence – but by continuing to communicate with the sufferer about their own feelings and capabilities, you should be able to get it mostly right.

Take an active role in supporting your loved one
Remember that people with depression often resist treatment because seeing a therapist or taking medication makes them feel that their condition is an illness. At the same time, depression affects clear thinking and memory, so it is often difficult to stick to a treatment schedule, even if they mean to. But their condition requires that they are extra-vigilant about their treatment and health and fitness in general.

Because of this, an important part of supporting a sufferer is helping them to make sure that they take their medication, visit their therapist, stick to a recovery plan and stay fit and healthy. While you shouldn’t completely take control of these aspects of their treatment, you should be aware of what they need to do, offer to help with systems or reminders and, if things are really bad, take over responsibility for a period of time.

Get help if they need it
While some people can handle depression on their own, simply riding out the bad spells or isolating themselves for a short period, many need help in the form of therapy or, in more severe cases, medication. The problem is that often, depressed people don’t want the help they so desperately need, so the responsibility for seeking it out may end up resting with you. If a bad patch of depression has lasted for more than two weeks or if the person is neglecting essential duties, functions or relationships, then it might be time to intervene.

Taking care of yourselfAccept your own feelings of loss or sadness around the condition
Remember that it is OK to feel sad or hurt at when a loved one withdraws into depression. It’s important to allow yourself the space to grieve your loss, rather than only trying to be strong for them.

Establish your boundaries
It is also critical that you establish your boundaries. Someone else’s depression can easily become debilitating for you if you let it. Make the time and space for self-care, making sure that you get the rest, freedom and happiness that you need even while someone you love is suffering.

And if unpleasant things are said to you in anger or sorrow, it is fine to let the person know that they were being hurtful. Just because you are there for them doesn’t mean you have to be a punching bag.

Get help you need it
And remember, you might need the support of a therapist just as much as the depression sufferer does, so don’t hold back if you think you could do with someone to talk to. SADAG is a great place to start if you need help.

The silver lining Many people live busy and happy lives with depression, so don’t feel that you or your loved one are dealing with an insurmountable obstacle. People get better, learn to cope more and manage their conditions successfully. Their chances of a positive outcome are far greater if they have the support of a loving friend or family member – which, since you have taken the time to read this article, is probably exactly what you are.

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