How to Help Someone with Depression

We Are Stronger Together When It Comes to Depression

A good support system is utterly essential in helping someone cope with depression. While the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports that 17.3 million American adults (a little over 7% of the population) struggle with a major depressive disorder each year, those struggles can be greatly mitigated by the care and attention of friends, family, counselors, medical professionals, and clergy. For the 2.2 million youth (amounting to 9.2% in 2020) who also struggle with depression, these support systems can work wonders in preventing substance use, suicidal episodes, and other comorbid mental and physical health issues.

A 2010 study from the journal General Hospital Psychiatry reveals that peer support can be just as effective as many therapeutic and clinical interventions. These statistics show that, while depressive episodes occur in intimidating numbers in the United States, there are many avenues for hope, healing, and continual wellbeing. In other words, you can be instrumental in facilitating a friend or family member’s recovery from depression.

How to Recognize the Signs and Symptoms of Depression

Many symptoms of depression are invisible to everyone but the person who is depressed. Still, there are outward signs that someone may be depressed. Per the National Institute of Mental Health, these include:

• Frequent or continued complaints about feeling anxious, sad, pessimistic, hopeless, or empty. These may be bookended by periods of high energy and frenetic activity (mania).
• Irritability with others or situations. This can manifest as anger, mood swings, frustrated comments, or even violence against self or others.
• Feelings of guilt or worthlessness. When someone is depressed, that person may feel it is their fault. It isn’t. Depression is a mental disorder and can occur for reasons including difficult situations, genetics, and disease.
• Loss of interest in work, hobbies, time with friends, and other activities.
• Fatigue or decreased energy. Depression can be as taxing physically as it is mentally.
• Slowed movements or speech. While these may simply be a side effect of fatigue in a depressed person, they could also indicate a more complex neurological or psychological malady.
• Restlessness. While this may seem like the opposite of fatigue and low energy, they often occur in tandem. The restlessness may be the result of dissatisfaction with the depressed person’s state of mind or feelings.
• Problems with concentration, memory, and decision making. Because depression is an “inward-focused” disorder but not a “selfish” one, interacting with the surrounding world may be more difficult.
• Insomnia, oversleeping, or waking too early. While these symptoms may also seem contradictory, when taken together they are called sleep disruption.
• Changes in appetite or weight. These symptoms are closely linked to the motivational and energy challenges that can occur with depression.
• Thoughts of death or suicide. People with depression may focus on or talk about their own death or of committing suicide. This symptom, called ideation, is something that needs to be watched closely. If you notice this symptom, it may be time to seek help on the depressed person’s behalf.
• Self-harm or suicide attempts. Any attempt at self-harm or suicide is an emergency situation. Contacting 9-1-1 or a suicide prevention hotline is vital if you see either or both of these two symptoms.
• Nondescript or localized pain or discomfort. These can include digestive issues (nausea or cramping), headaches, weakness, or body aches. If they are a symptom of depression, they may not have a physical cause.
• Substance use and “self-medicating.” The excessive use of alcohol or prescription or illicit drugs may be a temporary means of coping with depression, but it is not an effective form of relief.

How to Help a Friend or Family Member With Depression

A 2011 study published through the National Institutes of Health (NIH) measured the perceived advantages and drawbacks when a person dealing with depression turns to family or friends. When the person turned to has an understanding of what depression is, the toll it can take, and the resources that are out there, the depressed person is far likelier to seek help.

The Mayo Clinic pinpoints five key ways in which a friend or family member of someone with depression can help.

Talk to the Person About Depression, Its Effects, and Its Treatment

Your concerns will only be heard if you speak up about them. Be open and honest about why you are worried. Mention the changes you have observed in the person. This is a crucial period when sincere and non-judgmental speech is vital. Also, remember that talking involves listening to and validating the other person’s thoughts.

Seek the Help of Mental Health Professionals

You will be best prepared for the conversation if you have the right evidence and approach. This is why consulting with a psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor, social worker, therapist, or suicide prevention expert can be a good step to take prior to having that talk. These professionals can also give you a summary of treatment courses and other resources your loved one may need.

Talk in a Safe Environment

Depression often makes people feel hopeless or even desperate. For the protection of your loved one, make sure the environment is safe and far away from guns, sharp objects, or medications that could be used in self-harm or suicide. While it is important to keep your loved one safe, you should not automatically assume someone is considering self-harm. What your loved one needs is to be listened to without judgment or preconceived notions.

Hope for the Best, and Always Be Prepared

You should always have your phone handy. Hopefully, your loved one will be encouraged to reach out for help with that phone. If, however, your loved one is a danger to themselves or others, it is necessary to notify the authorities. Calling 9-1-1 or an emergency suicide or information hotline could save a life. Make sure that, before you walk into the conversation, your phone is on and fully charged.

Have More Than One Resource Available to Your Loved One

Depression can take many forms, making it necessary to have a variety of options available. A person with depression is most likely to reach out for help if there are multiple easy resources at his disposal. Below are three numbers besides 9-1-1 that can provide immediate help or refer a depressed person to local resources.

• The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) HelpLine can be reached at 800-950-6264 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. EST. You can also text them at 741741 or email them at NAMI describes its HelpLine as a “free, nationwide peer-support service providing information, resource referrals, and support.” While they are nationwide, they will also have access to local mental health services. The texting option is available 24 hours a day.

• The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is a free service available 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. They can offer referrals and have contact with local emergency services. The hotline is offered through the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The number is 800-273-8255. You can also text them 24 hours a day at 8388255.

• If your loved one has decided to seek treatment for depression, you can help by guiding them to local services. SAMHSA runs, a site which can help you find mental health treatment by zip code. It also provides information about different types of treatment, insurance coverage, and resources for those who also struggle with a substance use disorder.

How to Talk to Someone About Depression proposes seven things you should say or ask when talking with someone about their depression. The list below is modified from Healthline to contain additional tips.

1. “Do you want to talk? I’m here for you when you need me.” A person will only talk about their depression if they believe they will not be judged for it. By making yourself available to talk, you are assuring the person you are willing to listen without judgment. While there can be a social stigma around mental illness, you can make sure that when your loved one talks, they will know it is safe to do so.

2. “How can I help you today? Right now?” Even if the person is not willing to talk in-depth about their depression or treatment options, they may still be in need. Perhaps your loved one has a problem that is compounding the depression. Perhaps they have questions. Regardless of what your friend or family member is willing to disclose, the best thing you can do for that person is be a resource for the next step.

3. “How are you doing?” People often ask this question without giving the respondent proper time to give an honest, complete answer. When asked sincerely, this question opens the door for the depressed person to discuss how they are feeling, what they are willing to do about those feelings, or how treatment is going. As long as you have made the time and created a safe space, you can be instrumental in helping your loved one by starting with this question.

4. “You are not alone in this.” Your loved one no doubt knows there are people all over the country struggling with depression. However, that may do them little good if they feel isolated and misunderstood. By telling them they are not alone (as opposed to “I understand what you’re going through”), you are emphasizing the fact that they have a right to their own feelings, ideas, and goals. It is telling that person you are there in whatever capacity they need.

5. “You are important to me, your family, and your friends.” People who are depressed often feel a diminished sense of self-worth. They may feel they do not contribute anything of value to their social circle, family, or society. It is crucial that you tell them they are of value and why. Make this personal. People are less likely to self-harm or attempt suicide when they know they are treasured and needed by someone else.

6. “It must be hard. How are you managing?” People with depression often feel misunderstood even by those closest to them. Showing that you empathize and truly want to know how they are doing is one of the best ways to get a person to open up about their struggles and strategize solutions. Recognizing that depression is difficult is a show of solidarity and support.

7. “I’m here if you ever need me.” It is sometimes not enough to specify when you are available to talk because it will happen when the depressed person is most comfortable with reaching out. Reminding your loved one that you are willing to talk, reach out to an expert, or transport them to treatment enables them to take better control over their depression and their lives.

In the midst of any conversation about depression, you will only be able to care for your loved one if you also care for yourself. The resources detailed here are also available to you.

There Is Always Hope

With a strong support system, the right information, and access to resources, a person stands a far better chance of overcoming and living free from depression. Even when a person feels hopeless, family and friends can be the lifeline that helps them find hope again. If you or someone you care about is struggling with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other mental health challenges, it is important to reach out as soon as possible. Resources like the National Mental Health Hotline at 866-903-3787 are there for you, no matter where you are or what time it is. Remember that one phone call could transform or even save a life.