How to Support a Loved One with Depression

By Alexis McCall, LPC, ALMFT

Supporting a loved one with depression—be it a spouse, partner, friend, or parent—can be stressful and overwhelming.You can feel helpless, unsure of what to do and whether you’re doing enough. While it may seem impossible, you can understand and support your loved one, while also taking care of yourself. Here are some useful tips for doing so:

Recognize the Symptoms and Identifying Warning Signs

The first task is to recognize that the symptoms may be hard to see due to the stigma of mental illness and the overwhelming feelings of shame and guilt surrounding it.

Symptoms include:

  • Feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness.
  • Angry outbursts and irritability.
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (oversleeping).
  • Loss of interest in normal daily activities (sports, interests, sex).
  • Significant weight loss or weight gain due to changes in appetite.
  • Restlessness or appearing slowed down.
  • Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
  • Difficulty thinking or concentrating, and/or indecisiveness nearly every day.
  • Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent thoughts of suicide, or a suicide attempt/plan.

Help Them Find Treatment

  • Talk with your loved one about what you have noticed and why you are concerned.
  • Help your loved one understand that depression is a medical condition, not a sign of weakness, and that it usually gets better with treatment and support.
  • Encourage them to find help from a qualified professional (primary care physician, mental health provider, licensed counselor, or psychologist).
  • Help them prepare for their session by making a list of things they want to discuss with a doctor or mental health provider.
  • Let them know you are there to help them by setting up an appointments or going with them to the first session.

Practice Active and Compassionate Listening

Being a compassionate listener is much more than giving advice. The simple act of talking to someone and just being there for them means more than you know to someone suffering from depression. Be willing to listen without judgement, and always remember… we tend to listen to reply, not to understand. The key to active listening is being able to listen and just hear what they are truly saying.

Here are some things you should avoid saying:

  • “It’s all in your head.”
  • “We all go through times like this.”
  • “Look on the bright side.”
  • “You have so much to live for, why do you want to die?”
  • “I can’t do anything about your situation.”
  • “Just snap out of it.”
  • “What’s wrong with you?”
  • “Shouldn’t you be better by now?”

And here are some helpful things you can say:

  • “You are not alone in this. I am here for you.”
  • “You may not believe it now, but the way you are feeling will change.”
  • “I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and I want to help.”
  • “When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold on for just one more day, hour, minute… whatever you can manage.”
  • “You are important to me. Your life is important to me.”
  • “Tell me what I can do right now to help you.”

Understanding Suicidal Ideation

While it’s not easy to talk about, its important for loved ones to be alert to signs of suicidal thinking, which include

  • Talking about suicide, dying, or harming themselves.
  • Expressing feelings of hopelessness.
  • Acting in dangerous or self-destructive ways.
  • Getting affairs in order and saying goodbye.
  • Seeking out pills, weapons, or lethal objects.
  • Sudden sense of calm after a depression.

If your loved one says they are considering suicide, it’s critical to take them person seriously:

  • Stay with them.
  • Remove their access to lethal means of suicide.
  • Call the 911, go to the hospital emergency room, or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

Take Care of Yourself

Create Boundaries

Open communication and setting firm, consistent boundaries with your loved one will help in avoiding burnout or resentment toward your loved one. You are not your loved one’s therapist and you cannot be their caretaker 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. So, try to be mindful of not taking on those responsibilities. Speak openly and honestly with your loved one and set clear limits on what you are willing and able to do.

Keep Normalcy in Your Life

Continue to keep appointments, family traditions, and plans with friends as much as possible. Even though your loved one may need more of your time than they typically would, it’s important to continue to live your life. Go on that trip. Get some quality alone time. Continue to work toward that goal. Your life cannot stop just because you want to be there and support your loved one … and your loved one wouldn’t want you to stop either.

Seek support

The key to supporting a loved one with depression or another mental illness is seeking support for yourself. Doing so is not selfish:  You must take care of yourself before you can truly be there and support anyone else. As is often said, you can’t pour from an empty cup. Take care of yourself first.

Learn more about counseling for depression.

Under Pressure? Learn to Let Go
Common Reasons Why Your Reward System at Home Is Not Working