What You Can Do to Help a Loved One Struggling With Depression

What You Can Do to Help a Loved One Struggling With Depression
Coffee with friends or a book group at the library, for example, provide opportunities for connectedness. (Biba Kayewich)

Depression is a worn-out word these days. Sports fans are “depressed” after their team loses. Much news reporting is criticized for being “depressing.” The blogosphere and social media sites are clogged with every conceivable cause of and cure for depression.

As happens with most overused words, the real meaning of this one is fast becoming vague and abstract to many people, although not to the millions of Americans who suffer from the all-too-real effects of emotional depression every year.

As a mental health expert of 35 years, I understand firsthand how deep the cavern of depression can go and how dark it can get. That’s because I have experienced depression myself and have helped thousands of people climb out of that dark hole and back into the light.

Chances are, you have someone in your life weighed down by depression. I say this because the condition affects a wide swath of our society. Analysis by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) shows that an estimated 21 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in 2020. That represents 8.4 percent of all U.S. adults.

NIMH defines a major depressive episode as “a period of at least two weeks when a person experienced a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities, and had a majority of specified symptoms, such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-worth.”

Amid this troubling news, here’s the good news: While rates of depression are high, so is the possibility of healing. With proper medical guidance, healthy choices, and a helpful support system, anyone struggling with mental health difficulties can regain stability and joy.

It Helps to Know

That’s where you come in. If you want to help someone to overcome depression, you can step in to be part of the solution. Begin by understanding a few important facts:
Having the occasional “blues” is different from suffering from depression. Everyone experiences feelings of sadness from time to time, but depression goes far beyond just feeling down. Depression drains a person’s energy, hope, and motivation, sometimes making it hard to get through the day. Depression can affect every part of a person’s life—from work life to love life and everything in between.
Depression isn’t all “in your head.” We’ve all heard it before: “Depression is all in your head! Just give it time.” Or, worse, “Snap out of it already!” This kind of advice is rarely loving or helpful. Depressed individuals are caught in the grip of something larger and more tenacious than that. For those suffering from clinical depression, no amount of glib advice is going to make it “go away.” The fact is that depression is real, painful, and frightening.
Depression often has a stigma attached. Despite the prevalence of depression, many people feel ashamed or judged because of this condition, as if they should “just get over it,” have more faith, or practice positive thinking. Worse, many depressed people feel deeply flawed at their core, falsely believing that their emotional struggles make them different from others or even inferior.
Many sufferers receive no treatment. Among those battling depression in 2020, nearly 54 percent of adults with any mental illness and 36 percent of adults with a serious mental illness received no treatment of any kind, according to the NIMH analysis. Untreated depression frequently leads to other major health problems, as well as to a sharp increase in suicidal ideation. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that 60 percent of people who have died by suicide had suffered from a mood disorder, including major depression.
If you want to demonstrate care and concern for a depressed loved one, here’s how to start.

Recognize the Signs

According to NIMH, symptoms of depression include the following:
  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue, and being “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering, and making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability
  • Persistent physical symptoms
Those struggling with depression may experience a few of these symptoms or all of them. For many people, symptoms are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities, or relationships.

Be There

Sometimes, we genuinely want to help someone who’s struggling, but we feel awkward or inadequate. We’re afraid our words will come across as trite or shallow, so we don’t say anything. But just being there—present, available, reliable—is often the greatest gift that we can offer. Being physically present, even if you don’t say anything, powerfully demonstrates that you care.

Help Your Loved One to Engage Socially

Healing from depression almost always happens with the support and care of other people. The problem is that struggling people tend to isolate rather than socialize.

According to the American Psychological Association, numerous studies show that social isolation not only robs you of the help that others have to give, but also has serious physical and mental consequences in itself—including an elevated risk of anxiety and depression. Volumes of research on depression confirm that social isolation can be the most lethal condition of all for someone who has fallen into hopelessness and despair.

However, that points to an obvious and readily available remedy: connectedness. Social support is key for maintaining mental health, and it’s a solution as close as the nearest neighbor, a coffee meetup with a friend, or the library book group. Opportunities abound to be connected to others.

Encourage your loved one to start small by connecting once a week with someone who feels safe. Or, give an invitation for a casual gathering at your house. Start somewhere, and watch as a social support system grows into a solid source of strength.

Offer Encouragement at Every Opportunity

When it comes time to express your support, don’t worry about saying something profound or poetic. Just speak from the heart, assuring the person that you care: “I won’t pretend to know exactly how you feel, but I want you to know that I’m here, and you can count on me.” Every person on earth needs encouragement, and those who are hurting need it all the more.

Show Support in Tangible Ways

Some of the most potent expressions of care fall under the heading of “actions speak louder than words.” If your loved one is hurting, drop off a meal, run errands, bring flowers, get the car washed, arrange for a housecleaner, or send a gift card to a favorite restaurant. A small, tangible gesture can have a big impact during hard times.

Be a Listener, Not an Advice-Giver

One of the most vital ways to support your loved one is to listen. Be fully attentive and encourage the other person to talk as much as he or she needs to. When your partner tells you about a tough day or a big setback, he or she is likely not asking you how to solve the problem. What the person probably wants is to process emotions and explore concerns by verbalizing them. What most people want is understanding, compassion, and empathy—not advice.
Through your acceptance, affirmation, and attentiveness, you can communicate that you’ll be there when the person needs someone to lean on.

Help the Person to Get Moving

Scientists have found that regular, moderate exercise decreases overall levels of tension, elevates and stabilizes mood, improves sleep quality, and boosts self-esteem. In fact, research shows that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressants at increasing energy levels and decreasing feelings of fatigue.

That’s because exercise increases the release of essential chemicals and hormones that bolster brain health and mood. These chemicals include serotonin, a natural mood stabilizer essential in combatting depression, and endorphins, often called “feel-good” chemicals because they act as a pain reliever and happiness booster.

This is a practical way that you can help: Encourage your loved one to establish an exercise regimen. Better yet, arrange regular times to exercise together, for mutual support and accountability.

Guide Your Loved One Toward Professional Help

Your support can be essential in helping your loved one to overcome depression, but, most often, the struggling individual will need the expertise of a trained professional to ensure their safety and implement a treatment plan.
A certified counselor or psychologist, especially one trained in depression recovery, can offer a tailored approach to achieving health. Such a professional can uncover any physiological causes and recommend a regimen that will restore well-being.
Gregory Jantz, Ph.D., is the founder and director of the mental health clinic The Center: A Place of Hope in Edmonds, Wash. He is the author of "Healing Depression for Life," "The Anxiety Reset," and many other books. Find Jantz at APlaceOfHope.com.
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