Q. How do I help a family member who is depressed?
A. It is hard but these three ideal's will help.
I receive many emails from concerned relatives, partners and friends who are trying to help a loved one suffering the torment of a stressful or depressive episode. Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that people who love us are also affected by these illnesses and may find it difficult to understand what’s happening. They want to help, but just don’t know what to do for the best.
Having lived with a depressed partner for 3 years and suffered anxiety and depression for 5 years, I’ve experienced both sides. In this article, I’ll show you exactly what you can do - and, what you shouldn’t do - to help your loved one.
1. Please, however frustrated you feel, please never say to a depressed or stressed person: “Come on, snap out of it. What have you got to be worried or sad about anyway. People have it much worse than you.” Please understand that these illnesses cannot be “snapped out of.” You wouldn’t say this to someone with high blood pressure or pneumonia because you know it isn’t that simple. Stress, depression and anxiety are real illnesses that have specific causes. Asking someone to snap out of it makes that person feel inadequate or that they’re doing something wrong. Absolutely not so. Comparing their circumstances to people who are suffering greater hardship is no use either. I couldn’t have given two hoots about other people when I was ill because their circumstances meant nothing to me. I was struggling to solve my own problems and couldn’t see anything else. Knowing that others are starving, are terminally ill, or suffer in squalor didn’t matter a jot because they didn’t make my problems go away. One more thing about such statements: they confront the sufferer with their illness and they put pressure on them. This will cause sufferers to retreat further and further into their own world. Better is to offer love and support: “I’m always here if you need me or want to talk.” And 3 little words can mean so much: “I love you.” I didn’t hear them for 3 years and believe me, I missed them so very much.
2. As a loved one, it is totally natural to want to understand what is happening. Many loved ones conduct research into these illnesses to develop understanding. Nothing wrong with that whatsoever. However, a problem can arise if you start to impose your knowledge on the sufferer. This happens when you observe certain behaviors and habits performed by sufferers and comment on why they are behaving in such a way. For example, you hear a sufferer put themselves down, so you say “That’s a part of your illness. I’ve been reading about it and self-deprecation is one of the reasons why people become depressed. You need to stop putting yourself down.” Again, this is confrontational and puts the sufferer under pressure. All they’ll do is dismiss your comments and clam up whenever you’re around as they’ll feel they’re being scrutinised. A better way is to challenge them very gently by reminding them of a time when they did something good. For example, you hear a sufferer say: “I’m useless, I never get anything right.” You can say “Sure you do, hey, remember the time when you…”. Do you see the difference in approach? The first is more like a doctor assessing a patient, the second is just a normal, natural conversation and doesn’t mention stress, depression or anxiety. This is very, very helpful as it shifts focus from a bad event: “I’m useless…” to a good one: “remember when..” without exerting pressure.
3. Finally, you may find a resource - a book, a video, a supplement etc. - that you think will help someone to beat their illness. Perfectly natural. But there’s a problem. It confronts the sufferer with their illness and puts them under pressure to do something about it. The result of this will be resentment followed by retreat into their own world. Isolation is a part of these illnesses. Sometimes, you just can’t bear to be around people. My ex-partner used to sleep in a dark room for an entire weekend because she just couldn’t handle anyone being around her. “I bore people, I’ve nothing to say of interest and I don’t want anyone asking me how I’m feeling. I just want to be on my own.” I know, it cuts you to ribbons when you hear such words from someone you care deeply about. But please, you must resist the urge to DIRECTLY give them a resource you think will help them. For someone to emerge from these illnesses, they have to make the decision themselves. A direct offer will more often than not be refused. So, if you find something you think will help, leave it lying around somewhere your loved one will find it. The idea here is for them to CHOOSE by themselves to investigate further. Such an INDIRECT approach is more effective because once again, there is no pressure, no reminder, no confrontation. It is the sufferer who takes a willing first step towards recovery.
It is so hard to understand and reach loved ones when they’re caught up in these illnesses but please believe me, these ideas are very effective and they will help.
Wishing You Great Health!
Glen Edward Mitchell
Any questions? Ask Glen!