With depression on the uptick worldwide, it is striking closer and closer to home. The reality is that this disease has touched most of us – personally or someone we know. You may know just enough about it to recognize that something is robbing your loved one of the zest and hope they once possessed, and you long to see the shadow banished.
Supporting those going through the journey of depression is more crucial than it’s ever been before. You don’t need to be a doctor or therapist to be there for someone, and you don’t have to have been depressed yourself either. Your supportive presence could be the reason someone you know finds treatment, freedom, and hope.
As inspiring as this sounds or as much as you may desire to be that agent, you may feel ill-equipped to combat the stigma, shame, and emotions that shroud the journey of depression. When someone you care about has depression, it is not uncommon to feel overwhelmed, scared, or helpless, especially when you are not sure what to do or how to talk to them about it.
Let’s look at some ways to start talking to a loved one about their mental health in a non-judgmental, supportive way.
Learn more about depression yourself
To begin with, take some time to learn about the common signs and symptoms of depression. This incredible short video by the WHO provides deep insight into the depression journey. As you learn how depression is a disease that can be effectively treated through medication, supplementation, therapy, diet, and lifestyle, you’ll find it is less foreign than stigma has led you to believe. Education has the ability of making the unfamiliar less intimidating.
Why the conversation is important
Ignoring the condition, pretending everything is fine, or being afraid of giving offense are all forms of unhelpful benign neglect. Remember, avoiding talking about it isn’t going to help your loved one get better.
You may be worried about worsening depression by talking about it with someone. Even in serious cases, like suicide, broaching the subject is helpful. Yes, it can be scary. But often your deliberate, yet compassionate efforts to open honest communication about depression give the sufferer relief to talk about what they are experiencing.
Starting the conversation
To broach the subject, try opening the conversation from a "not knowing" stance. Therapist Krystin Henley says, “Be curious with questions rather than teaching with advice.” Try asking the person struggling with depression questions about purpose or lifestyle. You can use a simple question to pave the road to a deeper conversation, such as “What has been giving your life meaning lately?”, “What are some things that bring you joy?”, or “what do you look forward to?”
Answers to questions like this could be an indication that the person is battling some depression. You can use follow up questions about the change to deepen your conversation, such as, “You said you used to enjoy walking outside. What do you think changed for you? How does that affect you now?”
Remember that depression looks different in different demographics, and it’s not your place to diagnose your friend. “I think you might be depressed” is not an appropriate opening line since this will likely be met with rejection and offense. Voice concern for their wellbeing and changes you’ve perceived, “I noticed that you are not loving tennis like you once loved to” or “’It seems like you’ve been sleeping more than you used you, have you noticed any changes?” If they do notice the changes, this is often an easy place to suggest that they see someone about these changes.
“Asking what and how questions elicit open-ended responses and are less threatening than why questions.” Continues Henley, “Resist the urge to give a lot of advice and focus on encouragement and being a listening ear. Soon rapport and trust will be there, and you can gently express ideas that may have helped you in the past or present.”
Practice assertive communication
Carefully convey your concerns without putting your loved one down in any way. Your word choices can make all the difference in starting healthy, open communication. Starting sentences with “I” instead of “you” can help convey concern rather than an attack. For example, say “I have been concerned…” instead of “You haven’t been yourself lately.”
Show empathy and compassion
Take time to imagine yourself in their shoes. Perhaps you have been there – if you have, let them know, but do not say that you know exactly how they feel. You can share your story but be sure to listen to theirs and acknowledge their experience. The tone of your voice will help convey compassion and reduce their fear of judgement. Verbally affirm their experience, “That sounds hard. I’m so sorry you’re going through this experience. I’m always here for you.”
Use positive body language
Be sure to not intensely stare them down but provide meaningful eye contact throughout your conversation. Soften the conversation by moving your eyebrows and providing positive, yet compassionate facial expression. Unfold your arms and don’t put your hands in your pockets as you seek to convey an open, conversational demeanor.
Conversation Dos and Don’ts
Many a well-intended person has said the wrong thing at the worst time possible. If you’ve ever experienced depression firsthand, you understand the pain that these “Conversation Don’ts” can inflict. Lack of understanding about what depression is has contributed to these common “encouragements.”
It’s all in your head, just think positive
It could be worse
You should be grateful that…
Don’t take yourself so seriously
You’re just being selfish
Pray more, have faith
Cheer up, smile more
Remember, depression is NOT a choice. Adopting a different attitude is not going to make it better. Be careful not to say anything that associates depression with weakness (think about it like you would a physical condition, like hypertension or diabetes).
Keep these upbuilding phrases in mind for conversations with your loved one:
You’re still you
It’s okay to seek help
You’re important to me
I’m not going to abandon you
You won’t always feel this way
Thank you for trusting me to support you
What’s the hardest time of day for you?
Can I come hang out with you?
What do you think might help you feel better?
Listen to their experience
Simply listening without saying anything can mean more than the most well-intended question or encouragement. Give them the gift of your listening ear. You don’t have to understand everything to be there for them.
You can’t make them talk
Some people choose not to open up. But that doesn’t mean you can’t be there for them or let them know that you care about their wellbeing. This doesn’t mean they won’t talk eventually. Never give up on them.
You can’t fix them - but you can encourage treatment
Support doesn’t mean fixing. That’s too great a responsibility nor is it appropriate for you to take on. Your goal as a loving supporter is to help them seek depression treatment. Shame and stigma may prevent your friend from seeking treatment on their own, so you may be an imperative tool for helping them find appropriate help. Remember, depression is debilitating, it’s hard to do things. As conversation allows, it is appropriate to encourage them to see a doctor or therapist and to follow their recommendations.
Appropriate ways to engage them in a healthy lifestyle
You can recommend doing things the person liked doing before depression struck. You can offer to engage in healthy lifestyle measures with your friend, such as going for a walk or hike together. Try framing these activities as things that you want to do and that you want company for. Companionship and accountability go wonderfully together.
Be specific about how you can be there for them, and how you can’t. Don’t put up with manipulative or violent behavior. Awareness of your own emotional well-being is equally as important as your loved one's. Be sure to take time for self-care and building up your own mental health.
Be there for the long haul
Give your loved ones the gift of presence. You can be together without trying to fix things. This often looks like kicking into a listening frame of mind, being there emotionally and physically when possible, and listening to what they have to say. Your goal shouldn’t be to make them talk about their feelings, but rather to let them know that you’re there.
Your persistence is integral for support. At times your loved ones could get angry, grumpy, or want to be alone. Respect their wish for space, but don’t give up on keeping in touch and being there for them.
Recovery takes time. Don’t give up.
No one likes difficult conversations, but starting the dialogue is imperative. Your listening ear, judgement free compassion, and consistent presence has the potential to save lives.
Learn more about depression in Nedley Health 8-week Depression & Anxiety Recovery Program Online. This resource is appropriate for those suffering from depression and those who want to support a loved one experiencing this condition.
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