Watching a loved one in the throes of depression can leave you feeling powerless. Depression is a uniquely isolating, lonely experience for a lot of people, and so you may see someone you care about become withdrawn and distant. It’s distressing, and often we find ourselves at a loss for how to help.
But there are proactive steps we can take to help someone with depression – or someone we suspect might be suffering from depression.
What are the signs of depression?
There are lots of tell-tale signals that a person might be feeling depressed. Here are some key symptoms from the Mayo Clinic:
- Sadness, tearfulness
- Bursts of anger or irritability, that are often disproportionate or irrational
- Loss of interest in normal activities, loss of pleasure or fun
- Sleep disturbances such as insomnia or oversleeping
- Appetite changes
- Anxiety or restlessness
- Poorer performance at school or work, linked to a lack of concentration or ‘brain fog’
- Poorer memory ability
- New physical symptoms like headaches or back pain
But many of these might be hard to notice unless you live with or look after the person you suspect might be depressed. Other signs specific to your friends might include:
- Lack of communication, or becoming withdrawn – perhaps they don’t come to as many social events, or respond to your messages less often
- Frequently talking about death or suicide
- Irritability or snappiness
- New behaviours like excessive drinking
Importantly, some people with depression might not exhibit any outward signs at all. That’s why it’s important to keep an eye on your loved ones, and regularly check in with them.
How to find out if someone is depressed?
If you’re worried about a friend or loved one, but they haven’t explicitly told you they’re depressed it can be hard to know how to approach it. Depression is a sensitive subject, and some people may feel defensive or reluctant to share.
Approach the issue sensitively, and without sounding accusatory. Rather than trying to tell them how they feel, ask them how they’re feeling, and gently suggest that you’ve noticed some changes.
Mental health charity BeyondBlue suggests spending more time listening than talking, giving your friend or loved one an open space to say what they have to say. They also recommend open-ended questions like “tell me about…,” or, “what have you been feeling lately?”, as opposed to questions with simple yes-no answers, or direct questions that might be confronting.
If someone isn’t being forthcoming about how they feel, don’t try to tease it out of them too hard, or you might risk pushing them away. At this stage, the best thing you can do is spend time together and make sure the person knows you care.
Can depression impact anyone?
In short, yes – depression can affect anyone, at any stage of life. Depression is a very common experience; the most recent ABS statistics on mental health reveal that 10% of Australians suffered from depression or feelings of depression during the survey year.
There are gender-based discrepancies in the prevalence and adverse effects associated with depression: women are almost twice as likely to suffer from depression as men, but men are more likely to lose their lives to suicide than women.
What are the main causes of depression?
There are also certain risk factors for depression, which might tell you what to look out for. These include:
- Major life changes like relationship breakdowns or job loss
- A history of abuse
- Other mental health issues like anxiety
- Substance abuse
- Financial issues
- Poor nutrition and sleep issues like insomnia
- Age – depression is more likely among older adults
- Race – depression is more commonly reported among white people, but is often more severe and less often treated among minority ethnic communities
- Genetics – family studies have shown that risk of depression is two-to-three times higher if a parent has had depression
- Pregnancy and childbirth can increase a woman’s risk of depression.
However, there is no set limit of causes of depression. Depression may have an identifiable trigger or it may come out of nowhere. Requiring an explanation for depression can mean that a person who is depressed feels guilty, like they ‘shouldn’t’ feel the way they do.
That is an unhelpful attitude: at its core, depression is a medical event like any other, one that can happen to anyone – no matter what’s going on in their life, no matter how ostensibly ‘happy’ they may seem.
Five ways to help someone with depression
1. Ask how the person is feeling
Ask how the person is feeling, enquire about their life, and make sure they know you really care. Simply being a supportive, listening presence in someone’s life can make a real difference.
Consider where you can talk that will make the person most comfortable, and consider whether you are definitely the best person to ask
2. Avoid judgement
Don’t feel you have to know it all, and don’t act like you understand exactly what they’re going through. That’s not to say you can’t provide comfort if you have similar experiences to share, but don’t assume that you need to get what someone is going through in order to support them, and don’t try to tell them why they should feel better.
Often, someone who is depressed just wants to be acknowledged. Sometimes it’s enough to say, “I’m sorry you’re going through this”.
3. Encourage them to seek help
It’s important to note that you can’t manage someone else’s depression, and you certainly can’t help them all on your own. For yourself as well as for the person in question, you should encourage them to seek proper help, whether that’s therapy or simply going to their family doctor and asking questions.
However, don’t force it. Don’t be controlling, otherwise the person might withdraw. You can’t make someone do anything they don’t want to do, and it’s not your responsibility.
You should also find out who else they are talking to, and whether they have other friends or family members supporting them too. It takes a team – you can’t deal with someone’s mental health issues all alone.
4. Support them with information resources
A person in the midst of depression may find doing anything – let alone research about depression – difficult. One way you can help is to do some research, seek out helpful information resources and share them with your loved one. Useful sources for mental health resources include:
A full list of mental health organisations and hotlines can be found here.
5. Encourage them to get out and do things
This is a tricky one, because there’s a fine line between encouraging someone to get out and do things that might help them find meaning and contentment again, and forcing someone into a situation they’re not capable of dealing with.
Don’t just harangue someone into going along with whatever activity you want to do, but it might be helpful to get the person out of the house – even just for a quick walk.
Ask what they feel capable of doing, and if they are able to go out, be the person they know they can go with – if and when they’re ready.
Looking after yourself
Dealing with the mental health issues of a friend or loved one can take its toll on you, too. It’s important to set boundaries, because you can’t be someone’s entire support system, and you can’t always be available.
If you find that supporting someone else is taking its toll on your own mental health, take your own advice and seek support.
Amalyah Hart is a freelance journalist and content writer, specialising in science communication. She has a degree in Archaeology and Anthropology from the University of Oxford and is enrolled in a Master of Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She writes on psychology, health and health policy, and the environment. She also works in public policy consulting, specialising in the healthcare sector.