It can be challenging to know how to help someone with depression, especially when it’s a close friend or family member. Your love and understanding can go a long way. Here are 9 tips to help you navigate this challenging topic while being supportive, encouraging, and helpful.
1. Educate yourself
Before you have a conversation, educate yourself about depression in general. More than anything else, it’s critical to separate myths from facts.
For example, people with depression often get the message to “snap out of it,” which stems from the myth of controllability. Although it may come from a place of wanting to help, it can feel shaming or blaming.
As you learn more, you’ll discover that depression is a health condition with complex neurobiological, genetic, and environmental causes. It’s not your loved one choosing to be sad.
Just like someone with diabetes can’t just decide to start producing insulin, someone with depression can’t just decide to stop being depressed.
These insights can help you approach the conversation from a place of greater understanding and less judgment.
2. Recognizing the symptoms
Friends and family members often notice a shift in mood and behavior before the person with depression. It’s also important to understand that mental health conditions can co-occur—for instance, anxiety and depression. If you notice changes in your loved one, objectively naming what you see and why you’re concerned can encourage your loved one to seek support.
Recognizing the symptoms of depression isn’t the same as diagnosing the condition. It’s not your job to diagnose your loved one.
Recognizing is more about knowing what signs might warrant concern and understanding that symptoms of depression can manifest differently from person to person.
For example, while we often think of depression as profound sadness, some depressive disorders cause anger, mood swings, mania, and other symptoms that don’t look like a depressed mood in the traditional sense.
Here are some of the most commons symptoms of depressive disorders:
- Guilt and shame
- Unexplained physical pain
- Social isolation
- Decreased productivity
- Lack of interest in sex
- Trouble focusing, remembering, and making decisions
- Suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, or suicide
Research indicates that culture and gender also influence how depression presents. For instance, depression in men is more likely to manifest with aggression, irritability, fatigue, lack of interest, and substance abuse and addiction.
On the other hand, depression in women is more likely to include signs like sleeping more than usual, increased appetite, and feelings of guilt and self-loathing.
If you notice these symptoms, don’t worry about expressing yourself perfectly. You can voice your concern by saying something about the objective signs you’ve observed, like, “I’m noticing that you have been spending more time in bed than usual. I care about you and am wondering how you’re doing?” Lovingly expressing your feelings can help open up a conversation.
3. Encourage treatment
You can gently encourage someone to seek help, even if they aren’t sure they have depression. A diagnosis isn’t required to seek support. The good news is that support for depression is available in so many different forms that you’re likely to find at least one that meets your loved one right where they are.
It’s ideal to start with professional therapy, a medical evaluation, or both. But you can also begin with online tools, books, and resources if in-person options feel out of reach.
The chances are that your loved one feels overwhelmed and immobilized by the experience of depression. The idea of adding more tasks and to-dos to their life might make their load feel even heavier.
If you’re planning to initiate a conversation about depression, you may want to do a little research so that you can provide resources. Whether you share mental health hotline numbers or information about support groups, make it clear that the resources you found are just a few of the available options.
If you’re open to doing this, let them know that you can help them find help and make appointments. You can even offer to join them for the intake appointment.
Sometimes, a person with depression might express fear about taking antidepressants or seeing a psychiatrist. If your loved one has reservations about a particular kind of treatment, that’s okay. It isn’t your job to convince them.
It may even be helpful to let them know that you aren’t going to force them into anything. If you feel comfortable, you can explore together alternative ways to battle depression.
You cannot cure this disorder on behalf of your loved one, but you can be there to support them in recovering.
4. Practice compassion
You may be ready to talk, but that might not be the case for your loved one. Aim for an attitude of patience and understanding. Instead of trying to fix or solve, it can be more effective to listen with an open heart and simply offer compassion.
If you’re preparing to have an initial conversation, don’t worry about detailed treatment plans or timelines. Rather than insisting that you know what’s best, try asking questions and listening carefully to the responses.
Depression can feel isolating, so let the person with depression know that you’re willing to help. You can offer to make phone calls, set up appointments, and arrange transportation.
Affirm that your loved one is having a challenging experience right now, but remind them that they aren’t alone and that treatment and tools are available.
If you’re willing, let them know you’ll be prepared to provide strategies, arrange referrals, and navigate logistics whenever they are ready. But make sure that you only offer this if you’re genuinely able and willing.
5. Demonstrate care
It can take time to notice an improvement in symptoms. In the meantime, demonstrate care by doing things like listening and offering positive reinforcement. You can also support your loved ones in their efforts toward positive lifestyle changes. You can show your care by conveying acceptance and hope even in the face of depression symptoms.
Depression can include a sense of hopelessness. So it can be affirming to say things like, “I really believe you will get through this” or “I’ve seen you get through hard things before and know you can do this.”
If you notice that the person with depression skips an appointment or forgets to take medication, offer a gentle reminder to stick with treatment. Try to encourage without judgment or blame.
You can also suggest getting out to do some of the things that the two of you used to enjoy together. Maybe it’s a walk in a local park or takeout from your favorite restaurant. Offer a shortlist of options and let them choose.
Finally, you can ease your loved one’s load by offering to help with everyday tasks. Maybe this looks like accompanying them to and from mental health appointments, buying groceries, or helping out with housework or other chores. These gestures can help your loved one feel cared for with actions.
6. Accept them as they are
Depression feels terrible. It can be frustrating for someone experiencing feelings of worthlessness and pain to be told that their perceptions are distorted or wrong. That’s why listening to them and affirming the difficulty they’re experiencing can be an effective way of helping someone with depression.
Depression and loneliness often go hand-in-hand. Because depression can be such an isolating experience, it can help validate the challenging experience your loved one is having.
If you’re wondering how to talk to someone with depression, you can verify their experience by saying things like these: “I see how much you’re hurting. Your feelings and experience are valid. This is not your fault. I am here for you.”
Sometimes, the best way to help people with depression is to let them know it’s okay not to be okay. Set aside judgments and acknowledge that their feelings are real and that they’re having a hard time.
You can remind them that they’re far from alone and that many people experience depression. You can remind them that there are effective treatments out there and that you’ll stick around while they give the treatment a chance to work. If you’re wondering how to support someone with depression, these loving reminders can go a long way.
7. What to avoid
A person who experiences depression may hear blame or judgment in the things you say, even if this wasn’t your intention. That’s why it’s so important to be thoughtful about the way you speak to your loved one.
If you say something that inadvertently upsets them, try not to be defensive.
Avoid shaming or condescending language. Since people with depression are already going through a tough time, try to be as gentle as possible.
Resist the urge to “fix” a person with depression or minimize their illness or the experience they’re having because of it. It can be uncomfortable to watch a person you love experience a mental health issue without having a solution.
Don’t let your own feelings of discomfort about their depression get in the way of you showing up for them.
Stay away from guilt, blame, and shame at all costs. Instead, focus on celebrating small wins and maintaining an optimistic attitude.
Learning what to say to a depressed person can help you communicate most effectively with your loved one.
8. Locate support
There are several national resources available to help people with depression, as well as their caregivers. Plus, your local community likely has support groups, therapists, nonprofits, and other community groups to help people with depression and suicide prevention.
SAMHSA’s National Helpline is available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can reach a live person by calling 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The National Alliance on Mental Illness offers online support groups and in-person programs.
While listening and acceptance can go a long way, sometimes action is required. If your loved one indicates a desire to harm themselves or others, you need to take immediate action to get support.
In case of emergency in the United States, call 911 or proceed to the nearest emergency room.
If you’re not sure whether the threat is imminent, simply ask directly.
Some fear that being clear and direct may give the depressed person “ideas,” but research indicates this isn’t the case. Asking in a straightforward way can save lives.
Let your loved one know that people experiencing suicidal thoughts can text “HOME” to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
9. Get to know warning signs
The warning signs of severe depression should never be ignored or minimized. Remember, depression can be life-threatening.
Seek immediate help if you witness any of the following warning signs in your loved one:
- Talking about suicide
- Preparing materials for suicide
- Preoccupation with death or violence
- A sudden increase in substance abuse or risky behavior
- Giving away possessions or saying “final” goodbyes
- Catatonia, or an immobilized state
In urgent situations, emergency room staff at a hospital may be able to stop a person from self-harming or harming others.
Make sure your tanks are full
So far, these tips have focused on how to help a friend with depression. Especially if you’re in an intimate relationship with the person who has this mental health condition, it’s essential to take care of yourself when showing up for them.
1. Care for your mental health
For many people in this role, therapy and support groups are a beneficial form of self-care. Many mental health services are available to assist you as you learn how to help someone with depression.
In addition to helping you cope with emotional distress, seeking treatment for your own mental health leads by example. You’re also demonstrating the destigmatization of mental illness by seeking treatment.
By working with mental health professionals, you provide a living example of what it looks like to navigate difficult experiences using the tools and strategies available.
2. Set healthy boundaries
It can be hard to remain positive in the face of the mood swings, irritability, and anger that often accompany many depressive disorders. Be sure to set healthy boundaries for yourself and take time away when you need it.
3. Pay attention to your needs
We encourage you to pay special attention to your own needs. You’ll be more likely to know how to deal with someone with depression when you feel your best.
Paying attention to what you need and getting those needs met also puts you in a position to be more compassionate and understanding with someone else’s issues.
4. Practice self-care
Make sure to get enough rest, eat nourishing meals, and do the other things that help fill up your tanks. Many people in the role of caregiver find it beneficial to schedule a daily or weekly time to focus on relaxing and recovering.
5. Ask for help
This kind of self-care may involve asking other friends and relatives to help out, as well as finding someone who can listen with love to the issues you’re experiencing. Many of us are uncomfortable asking for help, but it can be healing to let friends and loved ones show up for you when you’re having a hard time.
6. Get resourced
It’s easy to take another person’s depression personally. Instead, try surrounding yourself with friends, family, and mental health professionals who can help remind you that you’re doing the best you can, that your best is enough, and that your efforts matter.
- Depression is a serious mental health condition, and it can be life-threatening.
- Educate yourself before engaging in conversation.
- Be patient and compassionate when showing up for a loved one with depression.
- You can do this by offering hope, tools, and treatment options when your loved one is ready to receive them.
- Watch out for signs of suicidal or self-harming behavior. If you’re concerned, ask clearly and directly.
- Godman (2020). How to cope when a loved one is depressed, suicidal, or manic. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/how-to-cope-when-a-loved-one-is-depressed-suicidal-or-manic-2020100521078
- Healthwise. (2019). Depression: Helping Someone Get Treatment. https://www.uofmhealth.org/health-library/ug4845
- Mayo Clinic. (2018). Depression: Supporting a family member or friend. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression/art-20045943
- The National Institute of Mental Health. (2021). Suicide. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/suicide.shtml