If the darkness of depression hasn’t knocked on your door, chances are it’s reared its ugly head in the direction of one of your neighbors. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, in 2017, an estimated 17.3 million adults in the United States had at least one major depressive episode. 11 million had an episode so debilitating it was categorized as causing “severe impairment”.
Thankfully, there are effective treatments ranging from talk therapy to medication to ECT. But it often takes a great deal of suffering and self-awareness before someone struggling with depression lands on a practitioner’s couch asking for help. In the interim, the greatest help often lies in the hands their social support system.
My personal battle with depression lasted about 13 years (a give and take, up and down, relapse and recovery sort of deal). It took years before finding the right provider to help me. Now that they’re in my life, I’m very thankful and credit them a lot for my well-being. But I can’t overlook other key players in my recovery — significant others, friends and family.
Here, a few things I’ve learned both from my own journey and those of my clients about how to help a loved one struggling with depression.
Avoid platitudes like “It’ll be okay” and “This won’t last forever”.
I sometimes give my clients the metaphor that people who are depressed wear different glasses than other people. The depressed lens is distorted, cloudy, dismal and biased. It filters out characteristics of people, places and experiences that don’t meet these criteria, ensuring that all that remains is negative. It’s like having a crack in your sunglasses; you could be looking at the most beautiful sunset in the world, but it’s hard to appreciate with the distracting crack in the lens.
This is why phrases such as “This won’t last forever” won’t always resonate with someone who’s depressed. When you’re depressed, forever is the present moment. There may not be hope or a light at the end of the tunnel. Who says you’re even in a tunnel? A tunnel implies an ending, an other side, a destination you’ll eventually reach. Depression, rather, is like being stuck in a dingy basement with no windows or doors; you can hear life happening upstairs and outside but it’s not accessible.
I am not trying to imply depression doesn’t ever get better; it does. But in the meantime, think about what would help someone through their present moment, rather than jumping right to the “someday” their distorted vision can’t see. Try to clean the fog off of their lenses. Help them understand they can learn to tolerate the pain in front of them. Sit with them while they’re crying. Turn on their old favorite movie. Make them some tea. Tell them that you know it sucks right now, but that you’ll be there with them through it — rather than waiting expectantly on the other side.
Continue including them in your social plans even if they decline.
It can be frustrating when someone continues to turn down your invites to social events. It’s easy to tell ourselves, “They’ll reach out when they’re ready”. But even when they’re not ready, your friend needs to know that you care.
Plus, they could be struggling with social anxiety. Social anxiety is like depression’s pesky younger cousin. It hangs out with depression a lot even when it’s not welcome, sometimes causing more disruption than depression itself. Social anxiety feeds people with thoughts that others are negatively evaluating or scrutinizing them, and makes things like eating in front of others or talking about themselves difficult. Sounds like pretty good reasons to stay home if you ask me!
When paired with the social isolation that often accompanies depression, social anxiety can trick your depressed friend into thinking they don’t want human connection and would rather be alone. But being left out of social gatherings can reinforce certain beliefs depressed people have; for instance, “I’m a burden”, “No one likes me”, or “People can’t stand to be around me”.
It doesn’t take much effort to send a text, include an extra invitation in your pile or casually mention a get together over the phone. Your words can reassure your friend they’re still welcome with you. Even if they reject your invite, knowing they’re still included can provide a lot of comfort during a dark time.
Offer to go to a therapy session with them.
Going to seek help from a complete stranger is one of the most vulnerable and courageous acts one can do, especially when hope is in limited supply. Sharing your own positive experiences with therapy (if you’ve had any) or even offering to help your friend make an appointment or attend their first session sends the message that they’re not alone. As a therapist, I appreciate hearing concern from friends and family because it provides a different perspective. It’s also a nice observation and protective factor for a therapist to point out: “It seems like you have good people in your life who care about you”.
You need not say much in the session; your presence alone will let your friend know their life and contribution to your life is valued. Sharing a difficult experience with someone not only lessens the pain of that experience, but also helps you feel more intimately connected to the person with whom you’re sharing it.
Don’t underestimate the power of physical touch.
In my most severe episodes of depression, I felt very disconnected from both myself and everyone around me. Depression is not always sadness; sometimes it’s a foggy numbness that prevents you from feeling anything at all. There were moments when all it took was someone holding my hand or giving me a big hug for me to know it was okay to come a bit undone, to cry, to let out some of the tightly wound pain I was holding within me.
A hand on a shoulder or a kiss on the forehead may seem fleeting and inconsequential but their power can go a long way. It is a way of letting your loved one know they are seen, heard and human just like everyone else.
In her book “The Gifts of Imperfection”, Brene Brown, researcher of shame, vulnerability and empathy, holds that we are all “inextricably connected to each other” and that connection is is “grounded in love and compassion”. I don’t know of any tools that can measure exactly how much connection, hope and love are required to mitigate a person’s depression; I wish I did. But I do know from personal experience that recovery cannot happen without them.
When we meet our loved ones where they are, we validate their pain. When we offer to walk alongside them in recovery, we show them their life is valuable. When we let them know we want them around, we disprove their negative beliefs that they are unloved. Healing is a long, slow process best done in the company and with the support from someone close to us.