How to help someone who is depressed

Published by Sarah Horrocks
Published on 13 June 2008

Persistent sadness, irritability, fatigue, loss of self-confidence. One of your loved ones, family members or friends is depressed. What attitude should you take and how can you help? Here’s our advice on understanding and helping overcome depression.

Depression: a 21st century malaise
Depression affects more than 3 million people (1 in 5 women and 1 in 10 men) of all ages, social backgrounds and lifestyles, which is why the government is taking more and more of an interest in it. Stress, individualism, growing up in modern society, a loss of bearings, everything associated with relationship difficulties and failure at work can affect morale. The causes of depression are many, but they manifest themselves in the same way: sadness, anxiety, fatigue, self-depreciation, guilt, insomnia, drop in sociability and libido, disinterest in usual habits and morbid, even suicidal thoughts.

The role of friends and family
Depression is an illness that can be cured, which is why it’s important to identify the causes as soon as possible to find a cure. Generally, depressive states are treated by specialists such as psychiatrists and psychotherapists who prescribe antidepressants for a set length of time with the possibilty of psychotherapy sessions alongside medication. The sufferer's friends and family also have a fundamental role in the healing process: they can help the sick person to accept their illness and be a shoulder on a daily basis. The most difficult task is understanding, supporting and providing comfort without rushing their recovery.

The attitude to adopt

- Suffering must be taken seriously: If someone close confides in you, don’t banalise their suffering by saying 'it'll pass' or 'it's just a phase'. This sounds like you don’t understand and the person will close himself off, feel isolated and think that no-one, not even a doctor, can help.

- Encourage them to seek professional help: You can be useful first by advising them to seek help and then by finding a specialist. If your loved one has difficulty making this step, then you could accompany them to their first appointment.

- Learn not to judge: It’s important to understand that it is impossible to reason with someone who is depressed as their ability to control their emotions is affected. It is also imperative to learn not to judge and not to feel guilty, even if at first sight you don’t understand the reasons for their depression. Don't tell them to snap out of it or criticise them by telling them there are many people worse off in the world, and avoid basic advice and lessons in morality.

- Listen well: Learn to be a gentle, patient listener. Let the depressed person talk with an open heart, even if they ramble and don't seem to be listening to you. Your support will be a comfort for the time being. However, make sure that you don’t treat the person like a child: this will make him or her totally dependant on you.

- Stay positive: To a depressed person, the future seems bleak. It’s up to you to be positive, even if they don't seem receptive to your thoughts. Talk about your life, what you do with your time, share your moments of joy and show the positive side of things. And above all, keep hope alive and encourage the depressed person by saying that tomorrow will be better.

- Encourage them to maintain a social life: It’s frequent for a depressed person to close themselves off completely and to reject being sociable, so encourage them to go out with you. Without being too bossy, suggest a walk, a film or dinner out somewhere. Although you mustn’t be too bossy, you must stay firm. Instead of saying ‘Would you prefer to go for a walk or stay in?’ say ‘Come on, I’m taking you for a walk.’ Although the depressed person will be stubborn at first, they'll thank you later.

Protect yourself too
Supporting a depressed person also involves protecting yourself. For many specialists it’s symptomatic. When liberating pain, a depressed person may tend to take possession of the comforting person’s positive attitude and risk destroying them mentally. Protect yourself from contamination: learn how to listen and then let go.
Finally, don't doubt yourself and your ability to listen to anyone, be it your partner, your child or your best friend. If you feel fragile, the depressed person can use you as a scapegoat. But if they feel that you know the limits and that you have confidence in yourself, they will feel more responsible for themselves and will seek help.
Helping a depressed person is often emotionally and physically draining, so take care of yourself and treat yourself to a bit of well-deserved rest and relaxation too.

Useful links:
Depression Alliance: tel: 0845 123 23 20 www.depressionalliance.org
Depression UK: www.depressionuk.org
Relate: Tel: 0845 456 1310 www.relate.org.uk
Samaritains: Helpline: 08457 90 90 90 www.samaritans.org
Saneline: Tel: 0845 767 8000 www.sane.org.uk

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