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How to Approach Your Loved One Suffering with Depression

Depression, Relationships, Coping Skills, Therapist Guide
6 min read

Depression is one of the most common mental health experiences, but because of that it is sometimes not well understood.

There is a difference, a big one, between Major Depressive Disorder and the normal mood shifts that people experience throughout their lives (like grief and loss, divorce, illness, stress, or the hormone shifts that can occur with adolescence, pregnancy, menopause, etc.).

Because of this, we tend to think we know what it feels like to another person. The most important thing is, you don’t

So first, here is the criteria for a major depressive episode:

It has to be ‘clinically significant’ and impair a person’s ability to function in their day to day life and it lasts at least two weeks. If someone expressed suicidality or intent to harm themselves or another person, do not hesitate to talk about it! Do not brush it under the rug. Think about how incredibly vulnerable it would make you feel to broach that topic with someone else, and act accordingly.

**If you think someone is about to harm themselves, call 911 or 988 (the national mental help crisis line). 

4 Tools for Addressing Depression with a Loved One

Tool #1 - Open Minded Conversation. 

We all experience depression a bit differently. For some, it is sleepless nights, restlessness, or irritability. For others, lethargy or tears or withdrawing from family and friends.

Whatever the case, asking questions and talking to your friend, roommate, or partner is the single most important action you can take to help. It's super important to go into this with curiosity and compassion and non-judgment. Most people shut down when they think they are being judged or pitied, whatever ‘shutting down’ is for them. 

What else to look for: 

  • they are just not themselves
  • gaining or losing a lot of weight
  • changing their sleep habits
  • not doing or not enjoying their usual activities
  • making self-critical or disparaging comments more often

If you see any of these, please ask your friend about them. Do not hesitate to bring it up. You will not cause depression by expressing concern. As long as you go into it with genuine intentions and a sense of compassion, it will be OK. Even if they brush you off at first, wait a few days and try again. 

Tool #2 - Information.

If someone is not receptive, information is the next step. Let’s say the person has not acknowledged that they are depressed. This is when you would give them some info - what you noticed, why you’re worried - and leave it open ended. Tell them what you’re thinking, and ask open-ended questions.

Get them info about the counseling center or a therapist that someone recommends (or Frame!). Tell them what you think depression is, or about your own mental health experiences. Give them info from Frame or NAMI or do your own research about what you are seeing.

When you are using information as a tool, keep in mind two things: information is what gets someone to think about change AND you can not make someone change. They have to make the decision, you are just giving them information that might help. 

So let’s say that you know someone has depression and you are trying to deal with the stress of worrying about them. This goes back to #1, sort of, but in a different way....

Tool #3 - Make a Plan - is all about the NEXT conversation you have with your loved one. 

When I say ‘make a plan’ I mean that you have to ask about what is going on with them, but more specifically about their Safety Plan they have with their therapist or other provider. If you are part of their plan, you need to know the plan! If you’re not, it is good to know who is part of the plan, as well as the warning signs, distractions, and what coping skills work best for them in a crisis. If you live with someone who has a safety plan with their therapist, you need to be a part of it! 

 Tool #4 - Be Honest.

With yourself and with your friend. Everyone has limits. If you can’t handle it, say so - and help them find someone else. If it is just too much, acknowledge it (at least to yourself!) so you can deal with it. You might have to set different boundaries or be assertive in other ways with them. If you aren’t sure how to be honest and set limits, you might benefit from your own therapist. Depression can be scary. Sometimes, the best help you can give is setting limits. 

We have come a long way with mental health stigma, but people still try to hide it. If they are not hiding it as well as they think, it's time to talk to them about it. That is the key - TALK and stop trying to hide depression - it takes much more courage and strength to deal with it than to ignore it. 

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About the author: Kendra Wilson is a licensed clinical social worker in Virginia & North Carolina. She has been working in mental health for over 20 years and specializes in working with clients with Eating Disorders and with using DBT (dialectical behavior therapy). Her focus is helping people with issues of over-control (including depression, perfectionism, anxiety, and all types of eating disorders) develop compassion (for themselves and others). View more of her authored content, or connect directly via her Frame profile here.