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If you want to help someone with depression, it’s important to be able to recognize the symptoms, and know how to reach out to them.
It can be difficult to help someone with depression — but all you can do is be supportive, patient, understanding, and encourage them to seek proper treatment.
Here are a few examples for how to reach out and help a friend or family member with depression, and the best ways to support them through the treatment process.
This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.
Visit Insider’s Health Reference library for more advice.
Depression is common, affecting about 4.4% of the global population and about 19 million Americans. The condition doesn’t just affect the individual with depression — it also affects their families, loved ones, and the communities in which they live.
“I almost call it an infectious disease because depression impacts a whole family system and community,” says Judith Feld, MD and national medical director for Ontrak, Inc., a behavioral health care provider.
If you love someone with depression, it can be hard to know what to do. Here are four ways you can support someone who has depression and help them improve their mental health.
1. Know the symptoms and how to reach out
Depression looks different from person to person, but in general, the major symptoms include:
If you notice these signs in someone you love, the first thing you should do is show your support. You might feel worried about approaching them, but it’s important to be straightforward and express your concern, says Max Maisel, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles.
You might consider saying something like:
“I’ve noticed you have been spending most of your time alone in the past few weeks, and you haven’t been going out with us anymore. I wanted to check in and see if you’re okay. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I’ve noticed you haven’t been eating and that you’re withdrawing more. I love you and I want to help you feel better.”
When speaking with your loved one, Feld says it’s important to be honest about what you are noticing and reflect what you are seeing back to them. Try to avoid coming off as judgmental or critical as that will likely cause them to get defensive and withdraw even more.
And don’t worry if your loved one doesn’t respond right away, Maisel says. You have shown them that you care enough to say something, which can be encouraging to them. You can always check in again later to see if they are ready to talk.
2. Encourage treatment
If you’ve observed the symptoms of depression in someone for several days or weeks, or think they might be worsening, then it’s crucial to try and connect them with a mental health professional, like a therapist or psychiatrist, says Maisel. A trusted primary care doctor, like a physician or pediatrician, can also be a good start.
Without proper treatment, depression can worsen and contribute to many other negative health outcomes, like an increased risk for heart disease, alcohol or drug abuse, and even self-harm or suicide.
Again, this can be a difficult conversation. Maisel suggests some of these examples as a way to encourage a loved one to get help:
“I notice you have been crying a lot lately and you just haven’t seemed like yourself. I care about you so much, and I wanted to see if there was anything you wanted to talk about. You know, it’s okay to ask for help, we all need extra support at times.”
“Would you ever consider seeing a therapist? I hear therapy can be a really helpful way to work through some of the stuff we’ve been talking about. Is there anything I can do to help get you connected?”
If you’re interested in finding a therapist for someone, our colleagues at Insider Reviews have put together a list of the best online therapy providers for reference.
And once your loved one does take the step to get help or begin treatment, try not to treat them any differently than you would treat someone in your life without depression.
“People are good at picking up on this and don’t want to feel pitied or looked down upon,” Maisel says. “If anything, consider inviting them to spend time with you, be patient with them, remind them how much they mean to you, be there for them if they need a shoulder to cry on.”
3. Be supportive
If you care about someone with depression, you’ll want to find ways to support them. Here are some other ways you can be helpful to someone with depression:
Provide assistance where it’s needed and where your loved one is willing to accept it. This can include helping to make appointments or researching treatment options.
Offer to take over small household chores or run errands.
Invite your loved one to take a walk with you or share a meal outside. Don’t push them if they decline. Let them know you’re happy to see them whenever they feel up to it.
Check in occasionally and keep reiterating you care for them.
Practice patience. Even with adequate treatment, depression doesn’t go away overnight. Progress may take months. Let them know you’re there for them every step of the way.
But when expressing your support to a loved one with depression, try not to offer treatment advice, Maisel says. Leave that to the therapist or mental health professional that the person is working with. Even if it’s well-intentioned, giving unsolicited recommendations can leave someone with depression feeling defensive or like they’re being judged.
4. Be aware of suicide risk
While most people with depression do not attempt suicide, thoughts of suicide or self-harm can be a common symptom. The risk of suicide depends on the severity of depression, Maisel says.
For example, people with depression severe enough to be treated in an inpatient hospital setting have an estimated 4% death by suicide rate, whereas the risk is about 2% for those treated for depression on an outpatient basis, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services.
Signs that your loved one may be having suicidal thoughts include:
Talking about death more frequently
Giving away possessions
Making a will
Talking about life being pointless or expressing feelings of hopelessness
Withdrawal from family or loved ones
It’s common to feel hesitant to ask a loved one whether they are depressed or having thoughts of harming themselves, but again, it’s very important to be forthright in discussing this, Feld says. Talking about it will not make them more likely to attempt suicide.
If you’re worried about suicide risk, make sure you or your loved one has access to the national suicide prevention hotline line at 1-800-273-8255. You can also use the crisis text message hotline by texting HOME to 741741. If you believe your loved one is at imminent risk of ending their life, try to get them to an emergency room or call 911.
It’s not easy to help someone with depression. But it’s imperative that you stay connected and try to support them in whatever way you can. Your steady, caring presence can make a huge difference.
However, don’t try to play the role of therapist or doctor. Beyond showing your love and support for someone with depression, you should encourage them to get professional help.
“The important thing is to convey to the depressed person that you are here for them and then encourage them to contact their health care professional to discuss what’s happening and what’s not working,” Feld says.
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