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How to Support Someone with Depression: What Can Help or Hurt

two men hugging to support depression

It’s important to make your mental health and self-care a priority. But anyone can struggle with depression. When you feel like you’re constantly drowning in life, it can take over and make it hard to function.

It’s not a one-size-fits-all, so supporting someone with depression is a delicate matter. Psychologist Joseph Tan, PhD, shares what you can say and do to help someone get better.

Supporting Your Loved Ones

According to Mental Health America, anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts among adults were already increasing before COVID-19. We’re also noticing an alarming increase in our youth’s mental health, especially within the LGTBQ+ community.

If someone is comfortable sharing their struggles with you, be mindful of how you react and respond.

Depression Support: What NOT to Say

Avoid saying things like:

These all have good meaning and intentions, but they can hurt. For your loved one, depression is chronic, and they have been dealing with this much longer than you know. Normal activities feel like running a triathlon. You can encourage someone, Tan suggests, but they need more active help than just waiting for their feelings to pass.

It's important not to minimize someone’s experience. When someone shares their feelings, it’s a big deal to them.

Thinking positively isn’t simple for someone dealing with depression. It’s a lot of hard work, and it can be harmful to oversimplify how they move forward when feeling this way.

Depression Support: What TO Say

These statements validate their feelings without being dismissive:

Just acknowledging the complexity of depression and their experience is a great start. You can normalize without minimizing, and turn it into a positive experience. Direct the conversation to active help while leaving some space for them to make a decision.

Do’s and Don’ts with Depression Support

The biggest don’t with supporting someone with depression: Don’t jump into problem-solving mode right away. It’s tempting to try to “fix” the problem for your loved one, but it’s not that simple. And if it was, they would have already done it.

Instead, keep an open door for your loved one to talk to you about how they’re feeling. Listening is key; make sure you understand their personal experience. And ask what exactly they’re looking for you to do. They may not know yet, but just be there for them as they share their feelings.

When they’re ready for help, lead them toward professional help. You can suggest they start by talking with their primary care provider. At UVA, we have a behavioral health consultant within our Family Medicine Clinic. After asking for help, you can see a consultant the same day to address your depression.

Why Tough Love Doesn’t Work

People struggling with depression need love and caring. Their self-view can quickly change to the negative side. "Tough love" reinforces these dark views because it makes them feel not good or strong enough to deal with these feelings. It also supports the historically stigma-laden perspective on depression as a sign of weakness.

Overcoming Depression

Depression can cause a wide range of symptoms that can last for weeks, months, or years. We can help you on your journey to feeling better.

Continue Caring

You should feel honored that a loved one felt comfortable enough to share their feelings with you. So, continue supporting them during their journey to getting healthy again. It’s important to be aware of your emotional wellbeing while you offer help.

How to Take Care of Yourself

People who care for those with depression often need support themselves. Tan explains we’re often like batteries that need recharging. The National Alliance for Mental Illness has online educational programs for people caring for those with mental health problems. These include programs within Virginia.

The goal is to set boundaries in a gentle way to avoid making that person feel like a burden. Also, help them find other resources so you’re not the only one they rely on. You can say “I wanted to share something that I think will provide some help above and beyond what I’m able to do.” 

How to Handle Suicidal Thoughts

If they’re unwilling to seek help, take action. Suicidal thoughts are an emergency. You’re not overreacting. Call the suicide hotline yourself – or even 911– and get other friends and family involved right away. You can reach the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

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