You may be surprised by who in your immediate realm of friends, neighbours and co-workers may suffer from depression. In fact, your family could certainly suffer as well. There are a few things which could help you with any of them and that’s why I’m writing about it here. I’ve been asked fairly often enough questions of friends and acquaintances that I’ve decided to let folks know whatever I have learned in order to help them cope with others who either have this illness or help others dealing with family who have the illness.
Please realize you cannot cure someone else’s clinical depression. It’s not just sadness which can be waved off with a few kind words. And “no” you cannot “just get over it.” It goes far deeper than that. If you’re going into this with the heroic notion that you can somehow “fix” it for your friend, spouse or relative, then you need to disavow it immediately. Operating on this assumption will only frustrate you and does no one any good.
There are ups and downs in depression recovery. It is neither swift, nor steady. Your friend or relative is going to go on the decline now and then. Don’t think it’s because you are failing them or they are not trying hard enough. The “roller-coaster” effect is just a part and parcel of depression.
Please don’t tell a depression patient that “you understand.” Unless you yourself have experienced clinical depression, you don’t understand. And your friend, spouse or relative knows it. It’s not a bad thing as understanding depression means having it. I’d rather no one, anywhere, understood it. The point here is to be honest with your friend or relative and don’t profess things that aren’t so. Sincerity will help him or her a great deal; it will engender trust, which every depression patient has a problem with, at one time or another.
No one wants to make your life miserable by being depressed. Try not to view someone else’s depression as your own affliction. Rather, be grateful you don’t have depression and try to realize what the other person is going through. Don’t take the things your friend, spouse or relative says/does, personally. They aren’t meant that way truly.
Recovery from depression is not just a matter of taking anti-depressant medication and going to therapy. Both the depression and recovery from it can totally change a person’s life. Treatment involves a lot of fundamental changes in a person. At times, you’ll wonder if it’s the same person you’ve known for so long. Believe me, it is–the depression probably hid the “real person” from your view, up to the point that he or she was diagnosed and began treatment.
At times, it may seem that the person is actually pushing you away. This is very likely true. Most depression patients believe that they unduly affect those around them and will do anything to prevent that from happening. Thus they isolate themselves from others. This kind of self-sabotage is actually a symptom of the illness itself. Don’t let it overcome your relationship. Try to understand this is often involuntary and irrational, and act accordingly.
Can You Help Someone Who’s Depressed? I cannot tell you precisely what is best for your friend, spouse or relative. I can only give you some guidelines from what I’ve experienced and researched. The rest is entirely up to you.
Don’t ask very general questions; you won’t get a meaningful answer. As an example: Rather than asking “How are you?” ask “How are you today compared to yesterday or last week?” or something of this kind. Make the question open-ended, so the person can say what he or she wants, but provide something specific for them to talk about.
Try to get the person out. They will want to isolate themselves –hibernate, even– but this is exactly what should not happen. Try to take walks with them, or go shopping or go to a movie, whatever you have to, to get the person out of their environment they’re trying to take shelter in. You may get some resistance, and even complaints; be somewhat persistent but not unreasonable. You don’t want to push them away.
Don’t be afraid to let your spouse, relative or friend talk about whatever they want to. And this is important: Even if they mention self-injury, or they are suicidal, you are not endangering them by listening. Actually, you are helping to protect them from those things; talking helps them deal with these feelings.
Keep an eye out for any changes in their behavior. These can include loss of or heightened appetite, sleep habits such as insomnia or sleeping too much, over drinking of alcohol or drug abuse, anything at all. Any major changes may be a sign of trouble.
Little things go a long way for someone with clinical depression. Small gifts and favors seem much bigger to them than to you. Don’t be afraid to (for example) leave the person a short note with a smiley face on it. Even if it seems silly or hokey, small considerations will help.
Non-depressed people have a difficult time understanding depression; which is completely understandable. Depression is not a weakness, a character flaw, a personality trait, or anything of that kind. It’s not God‘s punishment for past sins either. It’s not karma catching up with something the person did in a past life. It’s not someone just being too sensitive, believe me. It’s not laziness or even immaturity. It’s exceedingly real and very terribly serious. No one does anything to deserve it. And you did nothing to cause someone in your life to become clinically depressed.
Depression is also not just the emotion of sadness. In fact, many people suffering with depression experience numbness, or no emotion, rather than sadness. It is called a “mood disorder” but this is a misnomer, in that it can go way beyond someone’s mood. Depression can totally disrupt someone’s thinking, in every way.
Depression is also not an excuse. Having this illness doesn’t absolve anyone of responsibility for themselves. Don’t make the mistake of letting a depression patient “off the hook” because of his or her illness. Point out any transgressions and explain what went wrong, and make sure the person understands it. However, getting angry or vindictive does no good either. Keep criticism constructive. And stick by your friend or relative; you will find that it pays off in the end.
It’s difficult accepting depression in someone else. Just as any depression patient must learn to accept his or her illness, and work on overcoming it, so you must accept that they have a mood disorder. Since recovering is really a matter of work on the patient’s part, it’s impossible to start doing this work until one accepts that one must do it. By the same token, you will find it impossible to deal with someone else’s depression, unless you accept that he or she has an illness–a very real one.
From what I’ve seen, this is one of the hardest things for friends and family to do. I will not kid you into thinking that this is easy. It’s not. Accepting an illness in someone else, that you don’t understand and never will (hopefully), is not a simple or trivial matter. Above all, don’t blame yourself for it. No one can “make” another person depressed, so don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you caused it.
This is just as important as anything else! You offer nothing to someone else if you’re stressed out. If you need to, take some time away from the depressed person. It will give you a better perspective on things and unravel frustrations and tensions. Just make sure that your friend or relative knows that you’re still committed to him or her, anyway. You can even tell him/her that you’re taking “time out” for yourself, so you can better help. (It’s true.)