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How To Support A Loved One Through Depression

This article deal with topics of depression and mental illness and may be triggering to some readers.

A Conversation on Mental Health

I was recently caught in a brief downward spiral of depression. These images by @revelatori sum this experience up in such a simple and precise way. If you’ve never faced depression, please go view the whole post.

While being in this experience of heaviness, I realized, again, that some folks around me feel uncomfortable with my depression and don’t know how to respond. That’s okay. Most of us haven’t been taught how to name our own emotions, let alone show up to support other people in theirs. (This is why I work with youth: I believe we are ready to do the work earlier.) AND this means there’s room to grow and heal together.

Towards the end of this particular depressive episode (the part in which I actually realized I had been depressed for 3 weeks or so), I found that some of my loved ones and acquaintances didn’t know how to respond to “I’m feeling depressed.”  

My depression is uncomfortable, even though it’s sometimes disguised as temporary “comfort” in the form of a couch, a blanket, and the red Netflix button that says “NEXT EPISODE BEGINS in 5.” Thus, if I’m being honest, when I am in a state of depression, others’ discomfort towards my mental status is not just annoying, but exhausting and unhelpful. In order to best support ourselves and one another through mental illness, we need to become more comfortable with this conversation.

this is a cookie with a sad and worried face

I want to live into the possibility of being comfortably uncomfortable in the conversations on mental health and mental illness. To be clear, I am not proposing that we become nonchalant towards mental illness, but, rather, that we gain the skills and stamina to be present with one another through the discomfort. Furthermore, it is my hope that we learn how to show up for one another in the darker, heavier times, just as readily as the joyful ones.

Supporting a Loved One Who Is Depressed

In some instances, a child, partner, or friend may show signs of depression, and they may not be ready to ask for help or to call it “depression.” Other times, a loved one may reach out saying, “I am depressed.” In any case, you have an opportunity to offer support, and I invite you to get comfortable with your discomfort so that you can show up fully for the people in your life as they navigate their mental health journey. These 11 tips can help you support your loved one through depression:

  1. Check your own discomfort and respond with self-care. Stop. Breathe. Feel. Gently remind yourself that it’s okay to be uncomfortable, and you have an opportunity to get comfortable in this space, as you show up for your beloved. Furthermore, if at some point in your support, you begin to feel defensive or fearful, name it and take a break to soothe yourself. This is normal, and your self-care is an important part of the process.
  2. Listen compassionately. More specifically, refrain from offering quick fixes or accidentally invalidating your loved one’s feelings by saying something like “This is just temporary,” “At least you have ______,” “It’s not that big of a deal,” or “You’re okay.” Instead, you might say, “I’m here for you,” or ask, “What can I do to support you?” If you notice signs of depression and your loved one hasn’t yet named it, you might say, “I’ve gotten the feeling that things are tough right now. What’s up?” Then listen with love.
  3. Don’t take their distance personally. Someone else’s depression has nothing to do with you. If a loved one seems to be pushing away or saying, “I’m fine”, remember it’s not about you. Here, you might name what you are observing, “I notice that you’ve been quiet at the dinner table. Is there something you need to get off your chest?” Additionally, refrain from adding pressure. If, for example, you make an offer to take your loved one out to a park and they decline, let that be okay.
  4. Validate your loved one’s experience. Even (and especially) when you don’t understand your loved one’s depression, it’s important that you acknowledge how they are feeling. Do your best not to diminish, downside, or brush off their feelings. Depression is not “just sadness.” You might say, “I hear you,” “I care,” or “I’m here for you.”
  5. Respect their limits. If your beloved sets a boundary and says “I don’t want to talk about ____” or asks to change the subject, be responsive. If you feel like they haven’t named a plan of support, you can name this, “I care about you, and I wonder if there’s a way I can help you.”
  6. Normalize asking for help. Remind your loved one that asking for help is brave and important. You can also ask them if they have talked to a doctor or mental health professional about how they’re feeling. If they have not reached out to anyone else, you can ask if they’d like help taking the next step.
  7. Support them in using their tools. Whether your loved one typically sees a therapist, takes medication, or loves taking walks in nature, you can invite them to stick to the routines and self-care techniques that typically support them. Perhaps you can join them on that walk! Additionally, they might need help tackling their everyday tasks like laundry, homework, or grocery shopping. You can ask if they need your support by offering specific support. For instance, “Can I help you cook dinner tonight?” or “Perhaps I can stop by for a walk this morning?” or “Would you like it if I bring lunch over?”
  8. Check in with them regularly. If someone is facing depression, you might send a daily text just to say, “Thinking of you!” You might send a photo of the two of you together, sit down to watch TV with them, or leave a little love note somewhere for them to find. These words and actions help keep connection and communication open, allowing your loved on the space to share if they need or want. Know that you need to reach out more frequently during these times, as your beloved may not be in the space to reciprocate.
  9. Keep your door open. If you have the capacity, remind your loved one that you are a room, call or text away. If you don’t have capacity due to your own mental illness, you might ask your loved one if you can help them identify other sources of support.
  10. Don’t hesitate if you suspect a crisis. If your loved one mentions suicide or self-harm, don’t leave them alone, and help them contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are not physically with your loved one in a situation like this, reach out to someone who may be able to do a physical check-in and call the Lifeline.
  11. See the whole person. Depression is an experience that can last a day or a very extended period of time, and, however it shows up, your loved one is a whole person beyond and including their depression. Practice openness and meet your beloved where they are each time you engage with them. More specifically, don’t expect them to feel depressed just because they were having that experience the last time you talked.

Mental Health Matters

Each person and each depressive episode is different. This list is a starting point, a tool to support you in showing up for a loved one who is facing depression. Parents, I also invite you to explore these steps for talking to your teenagers about mental health. Again, if you or a loved one needs support at this time, consider the following avenues of support:

* Disclaimer: This blog is not meant to be a substitute for therapy or other mental health services. If you are dealing with depression, please reach out to a mental health professional. If you are in crisis, please reach out to the Crisis Text Line at 741741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. I am not a therapist, rather I am a life coach who advocates for the destigmatization of mental illness; furthermore, this piece is based on my own mental health journey and the ideas I share here will not apply to all people who face depression.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Adam Golightly

    I liked what you said about how to take a break to reduce feelings of defensiveness and fear so that they can be more supportive. My brother has been having a really hard time with his mental health and he wants to make sure that it isn’t something more serious or that is doesn’t develop there. Getting some help and talking to a professional could be really useful for him and help him figure out what he feels.

    1. Courtney Harris Coaching

      Thank you for reading! It sounds like you all are on track to getting your brother the support he needs and wants! This is huge.

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