A large amount of people experience a serious, and potentially destructive, form of low mood – in the form of depression. According to Government research, Around one in six (17%) adults aged 16 years and over in Great Britain experienced some form of depression in summer 2021 (21 July to 15 August 2021). Mixed anxiety and depression is Britain’s most common mental disorder, with 7.8% of people meeting the criteria for diagnosis.
Clinical depression is defined by the NHS as: “Most people go through periods of feeling down, but when you’re depressed you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days. Depression affects people in different ways and can cause a wide variety of symptoms.” Adding that “They range from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness, to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful.”
The NHS also offers advice for how to help someone with depression, and how important it is to be aware because “often it’s a partner, family member or carer who first realises that help’s needed. They may encourage their friend or relative to see a GP, or find some other source of support.”
For those with a friend or family member who is experiencing depression, it can feel overwhelming and helpless at times. But there are ways you can help. We’ve gathered advice from mental health experts, and those that have experienced it themselves, to get their best advice on how to help someone with depression.
Here are 13 ways that we can work on showing up for our loved ones in the best way we can.
1. Time to talk
It takes a lot for someone to say “I need help”, but it doesn’t hurt to raise the subject yourself. Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at mental health charity Mind, says: “Sometimes you don’t have to explicitly talk about mental health to find out how they are doing – it can be as simple as texting them to let them know you’re thinking of them, inviting them out for coffee or dinner or going for a walk.”
2. Ask one all-important question
Mental health campaigner Natasha Devon previously told GLAMOUR: “Because of previous stigma, it’s little wonder that many of us just don’t know what the protocol is if we suspect, or know, someone close to us who’s having difficulties with their mental health. The one thing we can ALL do though? Ask how they’re feeling. Then listen to what they have to say, without judgment. It really is that simple.
“They might not open up straight away, but try not to take it personally. Sometimes what we’re feeling is so alien that we simply don’t have the words to explain.”
3. Choose words of comfort, not direction
“For me, the symptoms of an anxiety disorder are sometimes as physical and as tangible as any other illness or injury I’ve experienced,” says Natasha. “So when people say, ‘try and put it to the back of your mind’, ‘calm down’ or ‘just breathe,’ – even if they have kind intentions – it’s about as helpful as telling someone with a broken leg to ‘just walk.’
What would help instead? Less instructional comments, and more words designed to comfort. For example: ‘I’m here’, ‘I think you’re having a panic attack but I’ll stay with you until it’s over,’ or ‘give me a nod if you want me to call a doctor.’”
4. Make any suggestions gentle
GLAMOUR’s mental health columnist, writer Beth McColl, gave some honest and relatable advice in a recent column. “When dealing with a loved one [experiencing depression], it’s probably best to assume they already know most of what you’re going to suggest they do to feel better. We’ve dragged ourselves on mental health walks, carefully selected new vitamin regimes from Holland and Barrett, tweaked our diets, journaled, read the books and listened to the podcasts,” she says.
“It’s not that suggestions aren’t ever welcome, it’s just that waiting for your cue is key. Instead of giving us more to do, try to keep us accountable and on top of the strategies we’re trying already.”
5. Encourage them to seek advice
“If you think someone you know might be experiencing symptoms of a mental health problem, you should advise them to visit their GP,” says Stephen. “You could offer to go with them too, like you would if someone had a physical problem.
“Opening up to a health professional can be daunting, so Mind has developed a free guide to help prepare for the appointment, it includes advice on talking to your GP or practice nurse for the first time, perhaps you could go through this guide together. It is available here.”
6. Do your research
“Whilst there’s been significant progress in raising awareness of mental illness over the past few years in particular, I’ve found that because having a disorder isn’t something that can be ‘seen,’ some people still tend to think of it as not being as real as other conditions,” says Natasha.
“When I developed bulimia as a coping mechanism for my anxiety as a teenager, I remember wishing my arm was in a sling, just so people would acknowledge that I wasn’t OK. If you know someone who’s suffering from a mental health issue, spend time researching their condition so you can get to grips with it as much as possible.”
7. Don’t disappear
“When I went into therapy and recovery in my mid-20s, my friends and even some of my family stayed away,” says Natasha. “At the time, I felt my illness must be embarrassing for them, although in retrospect they probably just didn’t know what to say.
“Now, if one of my friends tells me they are struggling with feelings of depression, I ask myself what my reaction would be if they had the flu. I text to say I’m thinking of them and that I hope they feel better soon. I ask them if they have been to the doctor, and if so what advice they were offered. I offer to come over with a film, treats and magazines if they want me to. Perhaps most importantly though, I remind them that whilst they feel terrible now, at some point they will come up for air.”
8. Get outside
“Helping us regain entry into the world can be as small as getting us outside, diversifying what we’re seeing and experiencing beyond the bedroom ceiling, the contents of the fridge, the bathroom, the bedroom ceiling again,” Beth says.
9. Offer practical help
“We may feel too tired or low to cook diverse or nutritious meals or keep on top of household chores and living in that unkempt, crisps-for-dinner-again state will probably only deepen our feelings of shame or unhappiness,” says Beth.
“Things that can help: hanging up the wet washing that they put in the machine in a rare surge of energy but have now let sit in the machine for hours, offering to make that call to the doctor for them, prompting them to reply to emails before things start to pile up, reminding them that it’s bin day tomorrow so they’re not left with several weeks’ worth of rubbish by the time their mood improves. It’s these little things that we remember.”
10. Be patient
“Someone with depression may get irritable, and be more liable to misunderstand others, or feel misunderstood, than usual; they may need reassurance in some situations, and you may need to be patient with them,” says Stephen.
Beth adds: “The way through depression is rarely, if ever, a straight line. There are good days and bad days, days where we can and days where we can’t. Try to remember that it’s not a failure if our mood dips after a prolonged stable period, it’s just information to be responded to. If you do feel privately disappointed, keep it to yourself.
“Ultimately, it’s our own dragon to kill (or at least learn to tame and live with), but it can be incredibly encouraging to have loved ones around who are curious instead of censorious, patient and helpful instead of constantly rousing us to action or telling us to snap out of it.”
11. Watch out for triggers
“There may be certain things that trigger your friend or relative’s mental health problem, for example, feeling stressed, relationship problems or money worries,” says Stephen. “You may be able to learn what their triggers are, or spot when an episode might be starting, and encourage them to take action before it gets any worse.”
12. Maintain a balance
Mind stresses the importance of striking the right balance between offering help to someone dealing with depression, and giving them the space to heal and come to terms with their situation.
The charity also suggests that your loved one needs to be encouraged to do things for themselves as part of their routine and recovery. Speak with other people in their lives to decide what boundaries need to be drawn, and stick to them.
13. Don’t forget to look after yourself
Supporting someone else can be stressful, so it’s important to remember that your health is important too. Taking care of your own wellbeing can help you maintain the energy, time and distance you need to be able to understand how to help someone with depression.
Originally published in Glamourmagazine.co.uk