How to Help Someone With Depression

Watching a loved one deal with depression can bring on feelings of helplessness. It can even be taxing enough to where you struggle to see any hope in sight. 

But, as painful as it is to see family and friends experience mood swings, sadness, and a lack of interest in life, you should know that depression isn’t a life sentence by any means. May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and there are ways to help someone with depression through education and learning to be patient and understanding. 

You may never relate to what they’re internally coping with, but a baseline knowledge of signs and symptoms, treatment options, and mental health stigma will help you better comprehend their thoughts and feelings.

Understanding Mental Health Stigma

Depression affects people in different ways. While in some instances you may see signs and symptoms that impact daily tasks, the reality is people can hide depression — forcefully or inadvertently — well enough to give off the appearance that they’re fine. Their outer self may present a joyful, funny personality. But, what lies within may be full of turmoil and depleted energy from keeping up an unsustainable lifestyle.

Depression can become chronic and so monotonous that your loved one may not even recognize they’re struggling. This is why it’s important to keep an open line of communication. This holds true for children who may be more unwilling to open up about their thoughts and feelings.

Unfortunately, stigma is an issue with mental health. It can be difficult to admit or recognize a problem for a variety of reasons, including fear, shame, or instability. As a simple reassurance, remind them depression isn’t a sign of weakness or that you’re not mentally tough. They’re not alone in this fight.

Instead, explain how it’s a treatable medical condition — you may have depression, but depression doesn’t define you. Be careful with your words and don’t press the issue. Making a connection can help establish a safe place to discuss these difficult topics. You can’t help someone who isn’t comfortable enough to accept assistance.

Here's what you can do to help ... Get in their corner and make sure they know you’re by their side in this fight. In the case of a child or a spouse, you could offer to attend couples or family therapy as a show of support. You can still express concern in their behaviors or attitudes but do so in a loving, positive manner that isn’t attacking or full of judgment.

Signs of Depression

From a numbers perspective, it’s common to know a loved one who has a mental health disorder. One in five Americans (450 million globally) deal with mental health and 7.6% of people have experienced depression

We all deal with daily stress in our personal and professional lives. One day you may feel lonely or sad, another day you may feel exhausted from the mental wear and tear. But, does that mean you’re depressed? Not necessarily. Temporary bad moods are one thing; depression is another. Depression hits when thoughts and feelings manifest over time and begin to take a physical toll. 

Try and understand triggers and be aware of certain medications that can cause depression. Before you can begin to understand what a loved one or friend is going through, you should have a basic grasp of depression signs and symptoms, including: 

  • Lack of energy, fatigue, or an unwillingness to get out of bed
  • Lack of interest in normal activities and hobbies
  • Feeling empty or alone
  • Noticeable changes in food consumption, such as binge eating or loss of appetite
  • Inability to concentrate at work or in school
  • Forgetfulness and struggling to make basic decisions
  • Ruminating on past decisions and dwelling on events you can’t control
  • Negative thoughts associated with hopelessness, pessimism, and sadness
  • Blaming yourself for outcomes
  • Easily irritated or frustrated brought on by emotional outbursts

Types of Depression

Depression is a broad umbrella term for the many medical conditions you can experience throughout your life. Depending on the type of depression, you may experience specific moods or have disorders with depression-like symptoms. Some occur with chemical changes in your brain, while you can tie other types to life events and developments. Here’s a list from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Health Disorders of the common types you should be familiar with: 

  • Major depressive disorder: This common type of depression occurs when you display many of the symptoms previously listed — low mood, hopelessness, and sadness — for more than two weeks. These symptoms can last months or years.
  • Persistent depressive disorder: While it may not be as severe as major depression, this disorder (also called dysthymia) lasts for at least two years and can impact your daily life, hence the persistent label.
  • Manic depression: More commonly known as bipolar disorder, you experience extreme swings of positive moods followed by depressive periods.
  • Postpartum depression: Women experience depression symptoms tied to pregnancy in the weeks leading up to (known as perinatal depression) or the weeks following childbirth.
  • Seasonal affective disorder: Depression hits when the warm spring and summer months turn to fall and winter when there are shorter days and less daylight.
  • Psychotic disorder: You’ll have the symptoms of major depression with additional psychotic episodes, such as hallucinations or paranoia.
  • Premenstrual dysphoric disorder: Another type of depression similar to postpartum, except this happens in the days and weeks leading up to a menstrual period.
  • Atypical depression: A subset of major depressive disorder, your symptoms improve after positive events or news.
  • Situational depression: As the name describes, you experience short-term symptoms brought on by a certain situation, such as a death or divorce.

Be Aware of Warning Signs

While it may initially seem difficult to help someone with depression, appropriate early treatments are beneficial in getting someone’s life back on track. Untreated depression can become chronic and lead to severe outbreaks and episodes, as 90% of suicide deaths come from people who previously experienced mental health conditions. 

In these cases, you may see warning signs where people with depression change normal routines, limit contact with others and self-isolate, experience extreme mood swings, or exemplify destructive behavior. These could be the initial stages of someone dealing with suicidal thoughts. They may display specific behavior, such as saying goodbye and getting affairs in order or verbalize things such as “I wish I was dead.” 

It’s OK to discuss suicide, and your loved one should know it’s not the answer. Studies show age and gender are two risk factors for suicide. Males account for 75% of suicide deaths, and suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34. 

Contact a health care provider or mental health specialist should you notice any of those signs. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Depression Treatments

Prescription medications have their place in treating depression, but you can suggest to your loved one they first consider exploring counseling and other forms of psychotherapy. 

In psychotherapy, you meet with a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another licensed counselor to discuss your thoughts, feelings, and actions. The idea of talking through your experiences gives you a better understanding of what makes you tick and how to address unhealthy behaviors.

The human brain has around 40 million cells. There are various categories of antidepressants that affect different neurotransmitters — serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine — that help your brain communicate. Serotonin impacts your sleep, appetite, and memory; norepinephrine aids in stress control; and dopamine is key in how you think, plan, and experience pleasure. 

Medications don’t work for everyone. Some antidepressants have side effects and may adversely interact with other drugs you take. Talk to your physician about which antidepressant may be right for you. 

These medications must have a warning label to let you know they may increase the risk of suicide. This label shouldn’t scare you. Instead, it magnifies the importance of monitoring medications and being open and honest with your doctor. 

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