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When someone you care about is suffering from depression, it can be painful to watch. People with depression don’t always make good choices. You may see them sleeping too much or too little, isolating themselves from those who love them, or living on coffee and cigarettes. The challenge for you, of course, becomes how to support someone with depression. What can you do to help?
People suffering from depression often don’t even realize they’re depressed. Particularly if the depression is longstanding, they may think that the way they feel is just part of normal life and that there’s nothing they can do about. Alternatively, they may be well aware that they’re depressed but feel so hopeless about life that they don’t think there’s any point in trying to make things better.
Whether they’re in denial or despair, stoic or self-destructive, people with depression who aren’t ready to face the reality of their condition can be hard to help. In fact, it may be that they’re impossible to help, at least for a time.
How to Support Someone with Depression: Don’t Give Up
At the outset, the very first thing you can do to support someone with symptoms of depression is mention that you notice something is wrong. Suggest that depression may be the cause. Be prepared: He or she may take offense. Just explain that your intentions are good, and offer your help and support.
At the same time, realize that you cannot “cure” that person no matter how hard you try. All you can do is help them recognize that there is a problem, let them know you care, and suggest professional help.
Depression Is Not Contagious; A Positive Attitude Is
It’s also important to recognize that depression isn’t contagious. While it may not be healthy to spend all of your time with people who “bring you down,” research now shows that positive emotions spread more easily among people than negative ones.
British researchers tracked the moods of more than 2,000 American teenagers using the same type of modeling programs used to track the spread of contagious diseases. They found that having enough friends with healthy moods can reduce the risk of developing depression by half—and can double the probability of recovering from depression. Importantly, the reverse did not appear to be true. Having depressed friends did not increase the risk of developing depression yourself.
This study highlights the importance of having a strong social network when you are depressed or vulnerable to depression, but it also shows that it’s perfectly “safe” to reach out to someone with depression and offer support. That person is not going to “bring you down.”
Best Advice When Learning How to Support Someone with Depression
When you first approach a friend or loved one about depression, bring a few recommendations for available local services, such as the names and phone numbers of therapists or support groups. The Internet, your own doctor, or your local hospital can all help you identify services available in your area. The American Psychological Association also offers a therapist locator service on its website.
Gently keep track of whether your loved one seeks treatment and follows up on whatever care is proposed, such as seeing a therapist or taking medication as prescribed. Those first few weeks can be the most difficult, when facing the truth is painful and medication may be causing side effects. Offer your encouragement along the way.
Beware of Serious Signs
With anyone who is depressed, it’s always important to be on the lookout for the signs of suicidal tendencies. Warning signs include:
- Being obsessed with death, talking about it all the time.
- Calling people to say goodbye.
- Engaging in risky behaviors, like drinking and driving.
- Putting their affairs in order, such as finalizing a last will and testament or giving away treasured objects or pets.
- Saying things like, “Everyone will be better off when I’m gone.”
- Talking or writing or posting on social media sites about committing suicide.
If you see any of these warning signs, call a mental health professional, a suicide hotline (such as 1-800-SUICIDE or 1-800-273-TALK), or 911 right away.
Don’t shy away from asking someone directly about his or her depression. Even trained professionals sometimes don’t recognize the signs and symptoms in themselves. Feedback from a concerned friend or family member is often a helpful “wake-up call” to someone who is depressed, whether or not that person decides to act on it right away.
Similarly, don’t hesitate to ask whether a close friend or family member has had any thoughts of self-harm or not wanting to live. Asking about suicide does not make it more likely. On the contrary, it can give people the opportunity they need to share their burden and get the help they need. Suicidal thoughts are often part of being depressed. They do not necessarily require hospitalization, but they do need to be taken seriously, and they always require urgent evaluation.