For Relatives and Friends
How to Help a Depressed Person
The most important thing anyone can do for the depressed person is to help him or her get an appropriate diagnosis and treatment. This may involve encouraging the individual to stay with treatment until symptoms begin to abate (several weeks), or to seek different treatment if no improvement occurs. On occasion, it may require making an appointment and accompanying the depressed person to the doctor. It may also mean monitoring whether the depressed person is taking medication. The depressed person should be encouraged to obey the doctor's orders about the use of alcoholic products while on medication.
The second most important thing is to offer emotional support. This involves understanding, patience, affection, and encouragement. Engage the depressed person in conversation and listen carefully. Do not disparage feelings expressed, but point out realities and offer hope. Do not ignore remarks about suicide. Report them to the depressed person's therapist. Invite the depressed person for walks, outings, to the movies, and other activities. Be gently insistent if your invitation is refused. Encourage participation in some activities that once gave pleasure, such as hobbies, sports, religious or cultural activities, but do not push the depressed person to undertake too much too soon. The depressed person needs diversion and company, but too many demands can increase feelings of failure.
Do not accuse the depressed person of faking illness or of laziness, or expect him or her "to snap out of it." Eventually, with treatment, most depressed people do get better. Keep that in mind, and keep reassuring the depressed person that, with time and help, he or she will feel better.
source: National Institute of Health Publication No. NIH-99-3561
Understanding Your Own Feelings Towards a Depressed Person
Taking care of a depressed person is often very stressful and frustrating. Many who are close to a depressed person have tried everything they know in order to get the person to seek help. They have also struggled with trying to make things better for the depressed person, often to the point of their own exhaustion. Sometimes, caretakers become depressed themselves as they find that their efforts have made little difference. Family and friends of depressed people miss the former person they knew. They see the dark cloud of depression not only affecting the person's life, work and family, but they see it eating away at their own relationship as well.
Those who are close to a depressed person often struggle with their own feelings toward the person. Feelings of concern, frustration, and fear combined with futile efforts to make things better can lead to stronger feelings of anger, helplessness, despair, resentment, and guilt. Please know that these feelings are very normal. No one can make another person get help for depression, and no one can take away another person's depression.
People who are depressed may behave in ways that are uncharacteristic for them when they are not depressed. It is not uncommon for a depressed person to be irritable, angry, argumentative, withdrawn, unmotivated, lethargic, and self-defeating. They may say things that are hurtful, harsh, irrational, or unusual. For those who are not depressed, these behaviors are hard to understand and very difficult to bear.
As a relative or friend of a depressed person you should pay attention to your own feelings. If you find that you are feeling overwhelmed, overly frustrated, depressed, anxious, exhausted, or guilty, then it is time to start taking better care of yourself. You cannot help another person if you are struggling yourself.
Taking Care of Yourself
Please keep these things in mind:
Your feelings and reactions are normal. Friends and family of those who are depressed experience a range of emotions, from compassion and empathy to anger, frustration, and even hatred. These feelings can be expected since it is very difficult not to take personally a depressed person's behaviors. A depressed person's life is being negatively affected by depression, but so is yours.
You don't have to be alone. Dealing with depression on your own can be a lonely and isolating task. Your friends may not understand, yet you need the support of others. Depression is a common illness, and there are many others who also have a depressed person in their lives. You may wish to join a support group and connect with others who understand your struggles.
It's not your fault. It is not uncommon for family and friends of depressed people to feel guilty or wonder if they hold some responsibility for another person's depression. Depression does not occur because of anything you say or do. Depression is a medical condition, like diabetes or heart disease, that needs to be treated.
Your feelings will change with time. Family and friends of depressed people go through various emotional phases. Initial reactions include disbelief or denial. It may seem that depression will just magically go away if it goes unacknowledged. After some time, people may experience some anger or resentment that life as they know it has changed. People also may feel grief that the person they once knew seems lost to them. After a depressed person seeks treatment and begins to feel better, family and friends often feel relieved and lucky or blessed that things are improving again.
Don't lose hope. Depression is a very treatable illness! Psychotherapy and/or medication have been shown to be quite effective. Eighty percent or more of those who seek help for treatment can feel better within several weeks.
Take good care of yourself. You will need to set boundaries and limits on how much you can and will do. this is a healthy and necessary thing to do. It is okay to take a vacation from caretaking once in a while. Schedule time for yourself and do things that bring you enjoyment and satisfaction. This is not being "selfish," it is being healthy and compassionate towards yourself. You may also choose to seek counseling in order to have a place to process and manage your own feelings.