Although it is an invisible beast, depression can deeply affect the people who love and care for those who have been diagnosed with the condition. When your loved one is fighting depression, they often spend entire days feeling worthless. That pain radiates out and leaves many friends and family members desperate to help find a solution. No one wants to see someone they care about be hurt, and no one wants to see someone they care about hurt themselves.
But when you are not the one being depressed, how can you get through to someone with depression and help them? The first step is to know more about what depression is to begin with. By arming yourself with a better understanding of depression and the many ways it can manifest, you can provide better support to someone currently in treatment for depression.
What Is Depression?
Depression most often refers either to major depressive disorder or any other depressive disorder, also known as a mood disorder. Mood disorders are characterized by abnormal changes in a person’s mood, lasting longer than two weeks, with symptoms that don’t appear to correlate to any specific current events. For example, it is normal to be depressed after a particularly harrowing experience or tragic loss, and some people take much longer than others to process their grief.
It is only after an appreciably long period of time without any change or improvement that a person’s grief may become a serious cause for concern. But many people with depression find themselves feeling low and in emotional pain after no trigger whatsoever. Their pain does not seem to have a reasonable origin, and that is what defines the disorder.
It’s important to recognize two things: a.) being sad is not something that needs to be treated by a medical professional, and depression treatment is not meant to be a cure against sadness. Sadness is an important emotion on a very wide spectrum of emotions, all of which should be experienced appropriately, and b.) a depression is recognizable because of how it is rooted not in external factors, but in internal ones. A person who is depressed will feel depressed for no reason and will find themselves struggling to feel pleasure or joy in many cases.
They may no longer enjoy the things that used to cheer them up and can undergo serious changes in personality and behavior as a result of their depression. Depressive symptoms often come and go in the form of episodes, although some forms of depression are characterized by a persistent yet mild low mood, rather than the more severe forms of depression that include suicidal ideation and forms of self-harm.
Although depression is not always chronic, it can be. Recurring depressive episodes can last a lifetime in the sense that many treatment options help bring depression into remission, but that doesn’t mean depression can be “cured”. It can come back and resurfaces particularly in times of stress or when a person struggles to maintain habits and lifestyle changes that they committed to during depression treatment.
For loved ones, that means it’s important to be patient, understand that everyone progresses through treatment at a different pace, and it’s important to be supportive of someone’s treatment rather than being critical at the lack of progress they’ve been making, or of the pace at which they are adopting certain lifestyle changes.
Be Supportive of Their Treatment
The first step to approaching someone with depression is making sure they understand that you wholeheartedly support them in their treatment, and that you are there to help them get better, rather than making things worse. Your presence in their life should give them comfort and help them improve against the disorder. Sometimes, just telling a loved one that you’re in their corner or that you’re willing and ready to help them can be enough for them to feel loved and understand that they are not alone in this after all.
Loneliness, like many other powerful negative emotions, features prominently in depressive thoughts and feelings. The idea that you are useless to others and superfluous to the world, as well as the thought that no one would help you, can be deeply distressing and is often a part of the many thoughts a person may have while depressed. Defeated and apathetic thoughts are common in depression, and any effort to actively negate or prove these thoughts wrong can go a very long way. Much of the therapy process lies in clearly identifying these negative thoughts and defining why they are wrong through real-life examples and other information that a depressed patient can use to affirm that their depression does not reflect reality.
It’s Okay to Talk About Suicide
Many are afraid to approach their depressed loved one about thoughts of suicide or are afraid to address the issue of suicide at all. It’s important to not be afraid. Talking about suicide and giving a depressed person the opportunity to air out their thoughts and feelings can be helpful in stopping a suicidal idea from turning into reality. Just because you don’t bring it up doesn’t mean it goes away, and to the contrary, the thought is just more likely to fester if it isn’t brought out into the light.
It is vital not to encourage or support thoughts of suicide. But it is equally important not to vehemently strike them down or be vicious about any attempts to speak out about them. This only further encourages your depressed loved one to never talk to you about suicide again, out of fear that you might react emotionally or even violently. It helps to ask someone why they think about suicide, and then to go through each thought with them to help them refute the thoughts. Saying “no one cares anyway” is a good opportunity for you to reiterate just how much you and others in the family do care tremendously. Remember, a person with diagnosed depression isn’t saying these things to gain attention, but because a part of them truly believes this.
Know That You Can’t Fix Depression
It’s tempting to push for a loved one’s recovery, but we have to understand that we are not in charge of the treatment or the pace at which it occurs. Only your loved one has the power to get better at fighting their own depression, and your role is a supporting one, first and foremost. Knowing you can’t fight your loved one’s battles for them is an important lesson to learn early on.