Smiling parents holding young children at beach

How to help a depressed loved one

December 10, 2019 | UCI Health
friend supporting another friend with depression

Depression is common: About 8% of people have experienced a clinical depression and nearly 20% of people have endured a minor depression that leaves them struggling to keep up with their daily routine.

Most of us have known someone who was depressed. No doubt, we’ve been frustrated by not knowing the right thing to say.

UCI Health psychiatrist Rimal Bera, MD, suggests it’s not so hard. Most people who are depressed, he says, have some awareness about their feelings of sadness. Rather than distancing oneself from that person, it is important to get closer.

“It’s definitely better to reach out and see if a person needs help and try to help as much as you can,” says Bera, who also is a professor of psychiatry and human behavior for the UCI School of Medicine. “Just be kind.”

Depression: What it helps to hear

When people are depressed, they often feel that they are not good enough. They may feel guilty and believe they are not doing things right, that there’s no hope.

Bera says the best way to help someone in that frame of mind is to listen, to let him or her set the tone and the agenda.

In that conversation, it’s important to:

  • Validate their feelings
  • Reassure them of their worth
  • Tell them they matter to you
  • Be attentive to their needs
  • Include them in activities

Rather than offer a blanket statement like, “Let me know what I can do to help,” Bera suggests inviting them to have a cup of coffee or meal at a specific time, or help them with a task.

Do ask how they’re managing their depression and whether they want or need to talk to someone.

What not to say to someone with depression

It can be hard, even painful, stressful and upsetting, to be around loved ones who are sad.

Bera says this sometimes may cause us to dismiss or minimize a depressed person’s feelings and experiences in order to make ourselves feel better.

But it isn’t useful to tell a depressed person things like:

  • “Come on, buck up!” or “Things will get better.”
  • “Everything’s not as bad as you think” or “So many people are worse off than you.”
  • “Well, when I was depressed” or “It was easy, I just cut out sugar and felt instantly better!”

Just listening without judging or shaming goes a long way.

How to handle suicidal thoughts

There’s a common misconception that if depressed people talk about having thoughts of suicide, it will cause them to escalate or act on those thoughts.

In fact, the opposite is true, Bera says. This is because it may be the first time someone has ever asked them about their feelings of hopelessness, and for the first time, they don’t have to keep it to themselves. They are no longer stuck with these scary thoughts.

It also may give the person an opportunity to better understand their degree of depression.

“Suicidal thinking can result from cognitive errors,” says Bera. “Just talking about it allows their brain to get back online. Let them say what they want to say. Don’t be afraid because that communication may save their life.”

When to seek help

On the other hand, if a depressed person says they’ve made a plan, bought the means or created a situation to harm themselves, or selected a date or time to do it, it’s time to take action.

“Do whatever you need to do to get help call 911 or a professional team, even if the person says they don’t want help,” Bera says.

People may often share those specific thoughts and say, ‘Please don’t tell anyone.’ You cannot worry about breaking trust with that person.

“Your friend will thank you for helping them move forward with a plan of intervention,” he says.

Signs of depression

It helps to be aware of the signs of depression among friends and loved one. The National Institute of Mental Health lists these indicators:

  • Persistent sad, anxious or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness or helplessness
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or activities
  • Decreased energy, fatigue or being “slowed down”
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions
  • Difficulty sleeping, early-morning awakening or oversleeping
  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
  • Restlessness or irritability
  • Aches or pains, headaches, cramps or digestive problems without a clear physical cause and/or that do not ease even with treatment.

If you notice a friend or loved one is displaying these behaviors, do reach out, Bera says. “Get closer to that person rather than distance yourself.”

Related stories