How to Recognize a Depressed Friend or Loved One?

Most mental health disorders are not quite like they’re depicted in television, and they’re nowhere near as obvious as the many physical disorders that can render a person equally debilitated. Conditions like anxiety and depression come with many different symptoms and faces, and they’re subtle. One day your husband, wife, friend, or relative might be the most caring and loving person in the world – and a week later, they feel distant, irritable, or even cold. Traits seem to disappear, some of their actions and words feel hurtful, and their interests for what they used to enjoy – including your company – slowly vanish.

It’s easy to feel attacked when those around us begin to change in negative ways. And for many of us, our first assumption is that we’ve done something wrong – or, alternatively, that something is bothering them. But it’s not easy to identify a disease like depression and figure out that it’s to blame for thoughts that feel eerily real.

Many who are depressed can exhibit symptoms long before they realize they are struggling with something that requires professional attention, while others might do their best to avoid talking about their behavior to avoid the labels, stigma, and complication that follows a diagnosis. It’s often up to the friends and loved ones of a person to help them figure out what to do next, and understand that no matter what, they’re loved and appreciated.


A Primer on Depression

When people refer to depression, they most often refer to depressive disorders, the most common of which is major depressive disorder, a medical illness that affects how a person thinks and feels to a severe degree. Major depressive disorder is one of the leading causes of disability in the world, and can lead to financial and emotional ruin, as well as suicide. But there are many ways to define a depression and identify it in a person close to us.

Depression can come alongside anger and irritability, as well as a cold and distant demeanor. It can come alongside extreme lethargy and the feeling of being constantly tired, as well as insomnia and restlessness. Some people can’t work or think, while some cope by doing nothing but work, unwilling or unable to face others and talk about what’s going on.

Depression is scary, isolating, and there is no easy or fast cure. However, with the right approach and the right support, it can be managed and overcome. The first step is finding it.


Learn to See the Signs

Depression can be difficult to identify because unless you’re looking for it, it’s unlikely to jump in your face. While changes do occur from day to day, they’re often gradual and subtle enough that they don’t seem very jarring. It’s only over time that the little changes add up to something unusual. These include:

  • Severe and sudden sleeping problems.
  • Change in appetite.
  • Mood shifts.
  • Procrastination, brain fog, and mental fatigue.
  • Loss of interest in some or most things.
  • Loss of humor.
  • Interest in self-harm and suicidal topics.
  • Unexplained physical conditions (pain).
  • Mentions of worthlessness/uselessness/helplessness
  • Symptoms persisting for more than two weeks.

It’s important to bust some myths regarding depression. First, depression is not a mindset. No depressive disorder can be fixed through pep talks, motivational speeches, boot camps, or tough love. You can’t simply shake someone and tell them to stop moping around or stop feeling sorry for themselves. While it might feel self-perpetuating, there are neurobiological causes for depressive symptoms, and these can be triggered by external factors (stress, most often). Telling someone to simply stop is like telling a severe asthmatic to just breathe better.

Instead, tell someone you’re ready to help. Ask them about medication and therapy. If they’re scared of going to a professional, offer to help them find someone reputable and drive them to pay a visit to the clinic (provided they’re ready for help).

Second, depression doesn’t only cause mental symptoms. Depressed people can also suffer from chronic headaches, chronic pain, stomach aches, rashes, hives, acne, digestive problems, and fatigue as a result of their depression.


It’s Not Always Depression 

Insomnia, irritability, and procrastination are not things unique to a depression. The signs mentioned above are just one way to help a friend or relative recognize a potential depression developing in a loved one. Even then, only a medical professional can properly identify and diagnose a disorder or determine if the cause of these symptoms is something else (which might not require medication or serious intervention).

Psychiatrists look at a patient’s family history, recent shifts in mood and behavior, and speak with them to determine what could have affected the changes they’re experiencing in their mind. It’s normal to be sad and anxious in response to certain experiences, and while psychologists and psychiatrists can work with someone to resolve complex issues, these do not necessarily have to be a form of mental illness.

But in some cases, what might seem like a momentary slump can turn out to be a serious depression. Not all people who experience depressive episodes struggle with major depressive disorder. Those with chronic yet milder symptoms of depression are diagnosed with chronic depression, or dysthymia. Depression tied to a woman’s menstrual cycle is known as PMDD. Depression that occurs during winter is called seasonal depression, and treatment may include using a lightbox to simulate sunlight and increase the production of vitamin D.

Depressive disorders come in many shapes and sizes, and sometimes, they’re symptoms of their own. Thyroid problems, brain tumors, and other neurological and endocrinological diseases can cause depression. Until a professional can help your loved one better understand where their problems are coming from, it’s best not to try and immediately label their condition. Instead, take note of each new symptom and work with a professional to help identify effective treatments.


Empathize and Understand 

As partners, friends, and relatives, we cannot do much to eliminate depressive symptoms, but we do play a major role in alleviating and preventing them. Due to feelings of worthlessness and the tendency to isolate, depression can perpetuate the thought that friends and even family members are judgmental and feel burdened by the depressed person.

Sadly, this can often be the case, as stigma against depression and other mental illnesses is still alive and strong, even at home or in school. However, much can be done to prevent these thoughts from taking root and further fueling a loved one’s illness by talking to them about their disorder, acknowledging its existence, offering help, and making it clear that you are prepared to help in any way you can. By empathizing and understanding that depression is not something that can be controlled or avoided, you can help your affected friend, partner, or relative feel more accepted and loved.

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