So, you have a friend or family member who suffers from depression, and you have no idea what to do to help them. A search online brings up a whole load of “how to help someone with depression” or “What not to say to someone with depression” until you feel like you’re drowning in well-meaning advice. (Which, incidentally, is a feeling that many depression sufferers can easily identify with 😛 )
Most of these guides have great advice, and you can learn a lot from them, but there is one big problem and it is this:
You are not dealing with “someone who has depression”.
You are dealing with an individual person.
And as with any person, there is some things that they will like, and some things that they will hate, and these things aren’t defined by their illness any more than they are defined by their gender or their hair-colour.
So then what can you do?
The only person who truly knows what will help and what will hinder is the person themselves. And yes, sometimes they don’t know what they’re feeling, or why, or how to help themselves, but unless you are a trained expert at this then you’ll still do much better paying attention to them than you will trying to get them to see things your way.
This is, to my mind, the most important of the three. Often when a person suffers from depression they have difficulty articulating things. Even if they know what they want to say they have trouble getting it across. I have had situations where I’ve felt crowded and terrified of contact, where all I can manage to get out of my mouth was “back. BACK!” Unsurprisingly this wasn’t exactly understandable to the worried people who were trying to help me.
The best way of dealing with this problem is to pay close attention to body language. If you try to do something to help someone and they tense up or flinch away then accept this, back off, and try something different. This doesn’t just apply to physical actions. If, for example, you try to cheer someone up by talking about the awesome party they get to go to next week and they seem to tense up in reaction then perhaps take the conversation back a step and try a different approach.
If you know that someone you care about suffers from depression (or, for that matter, any other illness or difficulty) and you are uncertain how best to deal with it; ask them.
They may feel willing to talk about it, they may not, but it’s worth a try and it’s the most surefire method of knowing you’re doing the best thing. Ways of asking can include “If you’re feeling down is there anything I can do for you that might cheer you up?”, “If you’re having an anxiety attack and I offer you a hug will that help or might it make things worse?”, “I found this list of ways to help on the internet, which of these do you think would actually be helpful to you when you’re having a particularly tough time?” Again, pay attention and keep body language in mind. If it seems to cause them to get more agitated or tense then drop the subject or ask them if they’d like to move on to another topic. Even if they were comfortable talking about it when you started it’s easy to become uncomfortable mid-topic and it’s often difficult to speak up about it while in the flow of conversation.
You can also ask during a depressive episode or anxiety attack if you intend on helping but aren’t sure how it will be recieved. (They may not always be able to answer, and in those cases you will have to make your best guess, but if nothing else then the question will have forewarned them as to what you’re likely to do, so it won’t catch them unawares.) I would advise that you keep these questions to short yes or no questions, such as “would you like a hug?”, “Would a cup of tea help”, “would you like me to stay and keep you company?”, “Would you prefer to be left alone for a bit.”
LISTEN TO THE ANSWER! If they say no to a hug then DO NOT HUG THEM ANYWAY! I can’t stress this enough. Doing something without asking because you assumed it would be helpful can be problematic, but asking and doing it anyway is just downright rude. If they say no to anything then the answer is no.
Finally, if you are worried that you may have done something wrong when they were upset or anxious or deeply depressed then try asking about it afterwards. “Was it okay that I did <y>? Did it help or make things worse?” or “Is there anything you’d like me to do differently if that happens again?”
If you are worried about asking too many questions then I’d suggest simply letting them know that they can tell you to “shut the **** up” at any time. This won’t always be possible for them, mind, but it’s a good start. You could also try the seemingly contradictory option of asking “Would you like me to stop asking questions?”
Also, PAY ATTENTION TO BODY LANGUAGE! If they tense up whenever you ask a question then perhaps this isn’t the best approach!
Respect this person. Respect their opinions and their requests and their emotions. Remember:
If someone that you are close to suffers from depression, and you feel that they need medication, and they don’t want to take medication… that’s their choice.
If someone you love suffers from depression and asks that you leave them alone when they’re at their most upset… that’s their choice. You can reassure them that you don’t mind being with them when they’re upset, or you can tell them that you’ll be right outside if they need you at any time, but if they insist that they want to be alone then let them.
If someone you care about suffers from depression and says that they don’t feel that they will ever be happy again, by all means disagree, and tell them that there’ll be amazing highs and silly laughs, but don’t tell them that they don’t feel that way, or that it’s silly to feel that way… that’s not a choice. That’s a fact they have to deal with.
If you want to help a person who is suffering from depression, and you listen to what they say, and you respect their choices and decisions, and you pay attention to their body language… well, it’ll still be a struggle. Depression is shit, and hell to deal with. But you’ll have a firm foundation to set out from and you’ll have made a safe space where they can talk (or not) about what’s bothering them. And when you’re dealing with depression, that’s one hell of a good start.
(Obviously all of these are subject to individual circumstance, just like any other advice. What I’m attempting to do here is to give you a guide to finding out what approach works best with the individual you are trying to help, not to tell you what you ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’ do!)