5 Tips for Helping a Depressed Friend or Loved One

February 23, 2015  • By Jenise Harmon, LISW-SDepression Topic Expert Contributor

When someone is depressed, he or she may struggle to communicate with those closest to him or her. It can be confusing and at times frustrating, too, to love someone with depression. It’s not always easy to help and give what is needed.

Sadly, the reaction of many people is to say simplistic and dismissive things like, “Just pray more,” or, “You just need to think yourself into a better place.” Suggestions and statements such as these undermine the experience of people who are struggling with depression.

Another thing people often do but shouldn’t: compare pain. A person I worked with in therapy once told me her nurse (in a psychiatric hospital) said she should feel happy her problems aren’t more severe. The nurse proceeded to talk about her husband dying and leaving her a widow with two young children to support.

No doubt, there’s good intention lurking beneath some of the things people say to those experiencing depression. Good intention, though, does little to ease pain.

If you’re in a position to help or support a person with depression, here are some positive things you can do:

  1. Ask what you can do to help. The person with depression might say that your quiet company would be helpful, or perhaps the person wants a compassionate ear, someone to just listen. Be open and generous. Maybe the person needs a ride to an appointment or someone to pick up a prescription.
  2. If the person is unable to communicate his or her needs, offer some specific ideas. Ask if the person would like to get out of the house, or if you can come and keep him/her company. Offer to take the person’s kids for a couple of hours. See if he or she needs something picked up from the store. When people are depressed, sometimes the most basic activities (such as grocery shopping or meal planning) can seem like huge, insurmountable tasks.
  3. Listen without judgment. Don’t mention that your aunt Gladys has cancer and is worse off than he or she is. Don’t use the phrase, “Well, at least …” Allow your friend to voice any hurt or despair. If you don’t know what to say, simply say, “I love you and I’m sorry you’re in pain.”
  4. Ask if the person has suicidal thoughts or feelings. This can be extremely hard to do, as it might feel like you’re being invasive. But many people’s lives have been saved because someone had the courage to ask. If the person acknowledges being suicidal, offer to take him or her to the hospital and/or let the person’s family/therapist/doctor know. Feeling suicidal and being alone is a dangerous combination. Just sitting and being with the person, even if it’s just reading a book or the newspaper while he or she rests, could mean the world. For more information on helping a person with suicidal ideation, see this recent article.
  5. Love the person. Love the person with words, with touch, with your presence. When people are depressed, it can feel as if no one truly cares about them. Let the person know that he or she matters to you. If appropriate, be specific as to why.

If you have loved ones, family, or friends who seem stumped by how to interact with a depressed person—perhaps even you—consider sharing this article with them. Let them know you understand it’s difficult to know how to handle a person experiencing depression, and that these ideas might be helpful.

Relationships are tricky. Some people are more natural than others at helping people with depression, but everyone is capable of compassion and empathy. If you’re present and available, you’re going a long way toward lending support.

© Copyright 2015 by Jenise Harmon, LISW-S, therapist in Columbus, Ohio. All Rights Reserved.