Depression is challenging, especially when a person who you love is suffering. Figuring out the right things to say, how to act, and whether to reach out or give them space, can become overwhelming. The signs and symptoms of depression vary from person to person, so identifying a concern isn’t always clear-cut or easy. Here are some warning signs to look for and ways you can make a positive impact on someone with depression.
Common Causes of Depression
According to the World Health Organization, 264 million people suffer from depression worldwide. Despite efforts to increase awareness, most people still aren’t getting proper treatment. Reasons for this include inadequate access to resources, the social stigma surrounding depression, and misdiagnosis.
Life circumstances, such as job loss, abusive relationships, or trauma, can trigger the onset of depression. For others, depression is a chronic condition with a genetic basis unrelated to outside influences. We’ve all heard stories about people who “have it all” yet suffer from depression. In this case, depression is likely an inherent psychological condition that requires ongoing medical treatment.
Recognizing the Signs of Depression
We may think that depression looks the same on everyone. Common signs of depression include a lack of motivation, low self-esteem, isolation, and even attempts at self-harm. For some, depression can lead to anger and lashing out. Whenever someone has a sudden or unexpected change in their personality, you might start to suspect a greater issue. If the person is “not acting like themselves,” it may be time to pay attention and reach out. Unusual sleep patterns, drug or alcohol abuse, and appetite changes often accompany depression as well.
Some forms of depression include periods of manic behavior. The combination of depressive and manic episodes is characteristic of bipolar disorder. When depressed, the person may lose interest in activities they once enjoyed, spend more time sleeping, and experience dips in energy levels and appetite. A manic episode is quite the opposite, characterized by hyperactivity, a reduced need for sleep, rapid speech patterns, and overly excitable or irritable moods.
Recurrent depressive disorder describes chronic depression without manic episodes. Periods of depression can be classified as mild, moderate, or severe, typically involving some level of depressive symptoms for at least two weeks at a time. While some people show obvious signs of being depressed, depression can be hard to recognize in others.
“Smiling depression” is a non-technical term used to describe those who suffer from depression yet seem perfectly happy to the outside world. While a person with smiling depression may appear high-functioning in their professional or personal life, they grapple internally with feelings of worthlessness or lack of meaning in their life. Perfectionists are more likely to exhibit signs of smiling depression because of their high standards and reluctance to show signs that others may perceive as weak.
Treatment for Depression
The good news is that when properly diagnosed, depression is a treatable condition. Despite the tendency of many people to downplay the seriousness of depression, one thing is for sure, hiding depression doesn’t make it disappear. Encourage your loved one to acknowledge their depression and seek treatment instead of trying to keep it to themselves. Accepting the reality of depression is the first step to getting effective treatment and managing the condition in a healthy, comprehensive way.
What You Can Do to Help
If a person feels judged, they are more likely to shut down and hide their feelings. One of the best ways to help someone with depression is by gently encouraging them to share and open up without pressuring them or giving unsolicited advice. Try the following statements to express your concern:
- “I’m concerned about you.”
- “I’ve noticed changes in you lately and want to hear how you’ve been feeling.”
- “You seem down. I wanted to check-in with you.”
- “How can I support you?”
- “Would you consider getting help?”
- “When did you start feeling down?”
Offer kind words of support like:
- “I’m here for you.”
- “Your life matters to me.”
- “Please tell me what I can do to help.”
- “When you’re struggling, please try to hold on for a little while longer.”
- “Remember that change will always come, even when you’re feeling stuck.”
These phrases express your feelings without causing harm.
Resisting the Urge to “Fix” the Person
Perhaps one of the toughest aspects of depression is the urge to “fix” it. While we can be supportive and proactive in helping someone, we can’t cure them. Be mindful of the natural impulse to correct another person’s behavior or feelings. These efforts often backfire and further isolate a depressed person.
For instance, telling someone about all the good things they have to be grateful for may seem like a good idea. However, for someone who is depressed, this can feel like a rejection of their feelings. Avoid phrases like:
- “Look on the bright side.”
- “Snap out of it.”
- “It’s all in your head.”
- “You have no reason to be depressed.”
- “Everyone faces hard times.”
Any effort to deny or suppress negative emotions is ultimately dismissive and hurtful. It is more effective to validate someone’s feelings of depression by acknowledging them and receiving what they’re telling you without passing judgment. Take a step back and avoid criticizing the person who is depressed even though you are worried about them. By committing to a non-judgmental approach, you will provide the best opportunity for that person to pursue professional help and continue seeking social support.
Setting Boundaries for Yourself
Caring for someone with depression can become all-consuming—especially if you are a highly empathetic person. Well-intentioned efforts to help someone else can start to take over your life and dip into your sense of well-being. It’s okay to let the other person know when you’re disappointed if they aren’t following through on treatment or if you feel frustrated that they blew off your phone call or invitation to meet up. Sharing your feelings before they get the best of you will help you rationally express yourself without hurting the other person or damaging your relationship. Don’t make excuses for abusive behavior. Make it clear that disrespect is unacceptable by addressing it right away.
When we’re hyper-focused on helping others, it can be easy to let things fall by the wayside in our own lives. Over time, this can build resentment and become a barrier in your ability to help others effectively. Check-in with yourself to make sure you’re staying on track with your personal goals and prioritizing your time and energy. You can set aside time to listen to your loved one while also encouraging them to seek professional support. Explaining to them that you’re happy to listen but are not qualified to give them the help they need can prompt them to take action and get treatment from an expert.
Encourage your loved one to take care of their health by inviting them to participate in outdoor activities or exercise classes. Point your loved one in the direction of a qualified therapist or suggest they visit a primary care physician and ask for a referral. For issues with depression or substance abuse, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration is available in English and Spanish 24/7, 365 days a year: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
If you have concerns about the risk of suicide, see our past blog for additional tips and resources: Common Misconceptions About Suicide.