Zelophehad’s Daughters

When Someone You Care About is Depressed: Things That Have Helped Me

Posted by Lynnette

When I blog about my experiences with depression, I frequently have people ask me how they can help those in their lives who are struggling with this illness. I’m always a little hesitant to answer the question, because people’s needs can vary widely. But I figured I’d list some of what I’ve personally found helpful, and less helpful, in my own experience.

Things Not to Say

1. Come on, snap out of it! Pull yourself together. Forget yourself, and get to work.

When someone express the idea that I can, with enough willpower, bulldoze my way out of depression, that suggests to me that the person isn’t all that familiar with depression. This advice might help if you’re feeling discouraged or having a bad day (though I’m not sure how helpful it is even then), but when I’m depressed, it sounds like I’m both being asked to do the impossible, and blamed for not being able to do it.

2. I know this amazing cure for depression . . .

People can be surprisingly eager to share various remedies for depression, from herbal supplements to programs to particular diets. And I certainly don’t mind when people mention things that have helped them; that’s useful information. But when it turns into proselytizing, and the person is convinced that their solution is the only one that works and won’t stop pushing it on you, it just gets exhausting. Depression doesn’t manifest itself in the exact same way in every person, or have the same combination of causes, which makes me wary of anything claiming to be The One True Cure. And the fact that there are so very many proposed cures indicates to me that we haven’t actually come up with anything definitive yet.

 3. You just need to pray and read your scriptures more.

Sure, prayer and scripture study can be good things. But I see at least two problems with this prescription. First, at least in my experience, prayer can help you cope, but you can’t pray your way out of depression. And when people prescribe it as a cure, that often just feeds into the guilt that I’m probably already feeling. Rational or not, my depression frequently feels like some kind of deserved punishment that I’ve somehow brought on myself—and framing it as the the result of unrighteousness or spiritual neglect just intensifies that feeling.

The second problem is a little harder to explain. But here’s the thing: When I’m in a depressed state, it’s not necessarily a good idea to pray and read my scriptures. It can actually exacerbate my symptoms. Reading the scriptures can turn into self-condemnation when I see all the stuff about sin and punishment. Prayer can turn into rumination about everything I’ve done wrong. Because of this, I find that I have to be careful in my approach to spiritual practice.

4. Stop thinking about yourself, and focus on serving others.

This is possibly the most triggering thing you can say to me. (Now you know!) What I hear is an accusation that I’m selfish, and that that is why I’m depressed. It doesn’t inspire me to go out and serve others—it inspires me to curl up in a ball and feel horrible about myself. I’m not denying that service can be a great thing, both in and of itself and because of the perspective it can give you. But I think it’s a lousy prescription for depression, when sometimes even getting out of bed seems outside of the range of what I can handle.

5. Count your blessings.

I remember a particular instance when I was in a pretty bad depression, and I decided to try this one out. I made a list of fifty things in my life that were good. I actually didn’t have to try too hard to come up with them. And yet I felt completely numb. If anything, it was more depressing, both to realize how disconnected I was from life, and because it made me feel like I had no right to be depressed. I’ve heard that it’s impossible to be both depressed and grateful, but I disagree. I can acknowledge the good things in my life—and sometimes I can even feel appreciation for them, despite everything—but it doesn’t take away the depression.

In sum, a possible rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t propose it as a cure for a person with a broken leg, don’t propose it as a cure for depression.

But on a more positive note—

What to Say Instead

1. I care about you. And I’ll keep caring, even when you make mistakes.

When things are really bad, it can be hard to believe that anyone would really care, but it’s nice to hear it anyway. And speaking as a recovering perfectionist, it helps to get reassurance that people don’t only care because I’m good at x, y, or z, and that I don’t have to meet some arbitrary standard of okayness.

 2. You’re not a burden.

When I’m depressed, I feel like a black hole that sucks away anything good or positive, which makes me not want to be around people, lest I contaminate them. I worry about being a burden, and wonder whether people would be better off without me. (In my experience, this is a pretty common symptom of depression.)  It’s helpful to explicitly hear otherwise.

3. I hear that you’re in a bad place right now. This is a tough thing to be going through.

It’s a big deal to me to feel like my problems are being taken seriously and not downplayed. I get discouraged when conversations turn into the Suffering Olympics—you think you’re depressed? Listen to this story! Depression hurts, regardless of how many other people are also hurting. And it’s really helpful to me simply to have it acknowledged that this is a hard thing to be dealing with. It makes me feel heard.

4. You don’t have to pretend that you’re not depressed.

It’s not easy for me to admit to people that I’m having a hard time; my general strategy is to act like I’m okay in public. I worry that talking about it when I’m in a bad place will make everyone feel awkward and unsure what to do. So I really value the people in my life who can simply accept it when I’m depressed, who don’t have expectations that I’ll snap out of it; it gives me space to be honest.

5. I believe that you can get through this.

This can be a tricky one, and I think it’s best paired with number  3—otherwise it can come across as trivializing the problem (e.g., of course you can get through this; it’s not that really that bad). But at some of my worst moments, it’s helped to hear that other people have faith in me when I’ve lost it for myself. It reminds me that depression isn’t all there is to life, and encourages me to keep going.

Other Things That Can Be Helpful

1. Take care of yourself. It’s okay to have boundaries.

Depression can be difficult for both the depressed person and those who care about her, and I think it’s particularly crucial for the latter to make sure they aren’t neglecting their own needs. When I’m in a bad spot, I find it really important for me to know that I’m not draining people’s energy, and that they’re able to set healthy boundaries. Otherwise, as I said above, I worry about becoming a burden.

I also know how easy it can be (at least for people with my temperament) to fall into a dysfunctional relationship in which one person feels responsible for “rescuing” the other. But it isn’t great for either person. It can lead to all kinds of complications: the person trying to be in a rescuing role can get burned out and resentful, and the depressed person might pick up on that and feel worse, or feel extra pressure to “get better.”

2. Talk about your problems, too. Don’t turn it into a one-sided relationship.

I  like it when people still trust me enough to talk about things that are going on with them, instead of being careful around me. It makes me feel like I still have something to contribute.

 3. Just listen, without trying to fix things.

It can be hard to do this, to just be with someone who’s having a hard time, without trying to cheer them up. But I’ve really appreciated it when people have been willing to hear that I’m depressed without immediately trying to make it better. The phrase “mourn with those that mourn” comes to mind; I think there’s something powerful to that.

Since I tend to use humor as a coping mechanism, I’m not at all trying to say that all conversations must be serious, or consist solely of my talking about things that are hard right now.  Sometimes distractions can be really good. But it helps a lot when people are able to genuinely and nonjudgmentally listen if I do need to talk.

4. Stick around, even if I’m isolating.

When I’m in a bad place, I, like many others, tend to isolate. I might find it too overwhelming to go to any social functions. But I do appreciate being asked (in a low-pressure way); it’s nice to know that people are thinking of me. I also appreciate the friends who periodically text or email to see how things are going, and whom I can hang out with in low-key settings. It helps me feel more connected.

5. Be there if I need support in getting professional help.

I’ve been navigating the world of mental health for so long that I sometimes forget how hard it can be to initially get into treatment, especially if you’ve never seen a psychiatrist or therapist. But it was incredibly intimidating for me at the beginning. There’s a catch-22 in that when you’re depressed and need the help, you’re too overwhelmed to seek it out—and then when you feel better, you have no motive to seek it out. So having someone who will encourage you and give you moral support can really make a difference. Years ago, when I was getting back into treatment after several years and some bad experiences, a friend made an initial therapy appointment for me, and then came with me the first time and waited while I was in there. That was a huge help.

Okay, that’s what I came up with; I hope it’s helpful. Please feel free to chime in with your own experiences, ideas, or even disagreements.

25 Responses to “When Someone You Care About is Depressed: Things That Have Helped Me”

  1. 1.

    Very helpful list; as always, thanks for sharing your hard won wisdom.

  2. 2.

    I agree with everything but especially this: 1. Take care of yourself. It’s okay to have boundaries. I find that it’s easier to be honest and open up to someone if I know or trust that they aren’t going to feel I’m a burden or that they are responsible for my well being. It is definitely also helpful to feel a reciprocal relationship where I could add value or insight to their life and trust that I can handle it.
    I also think you do a really great job of being the supportive person you describe. You have helped me more than you know.

  3. 3.

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts, and especially your guidance about the difficulties with perceived good spiritual practices. My husband suffers from depression and years ago I just thought if we could go to the temple more, it would help. Not. I’ve had to come to accept that what is good advice for people in a normal mental state can actually be detrimental to clinical depression, something that is hard to understand for many in the church (and in my family). Patience, love, and prayers on his behalf (and for me to keep having hope and faith and charity) is all that gets me through some days. And certainly for those who suffer with the depressed family members, they can find comfort as they increase their own prayer, scripture study, temple worship, serve others, and count their blessings!

  4. 4.

    I love this list. It definitely rings true with my experience with depression. I especially agree with your point that one of the most helpful things someone can do is assist in making the first therapist or doctor’s appointment. This has been huge for me. Finally, there are a handful of people in my life who plan low-key activities out of the house for me when I am in the midst of a depression. I never want to go but am almost always glad when I do. However, this can admittedly be tricky, should be done gently, and “No” still means “No.”

  5. 5.

    Are you trying to say that “snap out of it” is not a good cure for a broken leg? I can tell you are not a medical professional.

    Also, this post is awesome.

  6. 6.

    It is amazing that you are sharing this Lynnette. I think it is so important for all of us to gain more awareness about how to help people who are struggling. I think this advice could apply to a lot of situations in which someone is going through a hard time. For example, it is really hard to know what to say when someone has experienced the death of a loved one. We all need to learn how to say, “I realize this must be really hard for you.” and “I love you”. We need to stop trying to fix other people’s problems (unless they ask) and just acknowledge someone’s pain.

    Having gone through some bouts of depression, I can attest that most of this would help me as well. However, “you’re not a burden” is a tricky one for me. When I am depressed I feel like a big burden, but when people tell me I am not I have a tendency to think that they are lying to make me feel better. For me, it helps that the other person acknowledges that my depression can be challenging for them at times, but that overall they value their relationship with me and they want to support me anyway they can. For example, saying something like “I don’t always know what to say or do, but I love you and want to support you” is a very helpful thing for me to hear.

  7. 7.

    Well done, Lynnette!

  8. 8.

    Yes!! Awesome list, Lynnette. Your #s 4 and 5 of things not to say are particularly triggering for me, too. I can’t even hear those suggestions when I’m in a normal mood state anymore and not get defensive about it.

    I also love your list of to dos! I’m an isolater, too, when a mood episode kicks in, and it is so humbling and touching to look back and see people that stuck by me when I was trying to push them away. I know it’s unfair to expect that of everyone, which makes me even more amazed at those friends that did it for me. Even letting me take a break but still being there for me when I am ready again is a huge help to me.

    And finally, this: “I care about you. And I’ll keep caring, even when you make mistakes.” During my first episode I had no idea what was happening to me. I wish someone had known to say these words to me. I wish I had known to ask for this.

  9. 9.

    I like your “Things Not To Say.” I think it works well for things not to say to single people, too. :)

  10. 10.

    [...] read this about helping others with depression and found it very accurate.  I’m doing ok right now, [...]

  11. 11.

    Great list, Lynette. Thank you.

  12. 12.

    Lynette, If I ever say anything insensitive to you, feel free to tell me. My natural state is “foot in mouth” anyway.

    Also, great list! I think a good rule is to never say the phrase “you should…” Should is a word of evil.

  13. 13.

    Excellent post, and this is so true.

  14. 14.

    As a chronic clinical depressive, I approve this message. Thanks, Lynette.

  15. 15.

    Thank you so much! I have been battling depression for a long time and you have been able to express what I have been unable to communicate to others when I am in a bad spot.

    The things not to say category was very helpful, not just for what others may say but because I find myself saying those things to myself and then my cycle just continues to get worse.

  16. 16.

    Thank you a million times over. As someone who is severely depressed with OCD and PTSD (and was just put on medication), this post resonates deeply with me. It is entirely accurate. Wonderful suggestions and tips. Thank you so much.

  17. 17.

    This is a great list. Thanks for compiling it. One more thing I would add. Depression can make people feel like everyone would be so much better off without them that they should be dead to relieve the burdens of others. Can I just say that depressed people’s brains tell them this all the time, and it’s a complete lie.

    The people I’ve known in my life who had times of feeling suicidal all are particularly bright lights for others, when they’re feeling well. All have amazing talents and creativity, even if they can’t show it through the depression. The depression can be treated, it can get better on its own, and it is only one facet of what’s usually a sparkling jewel of a person. We are all far better off for knowing such people in both sad times and happy. Present company definitely not excepted!

  18. 18.

    emdeedub:

    I find that it’s easier to be honest and open up to someone if I know or trust that they aren’t going to feel I’m a burden or that they are responsible for my well being.

    Yes, exactly! I so value the people in my life who genuinely care, but don’t take responsibility for me. It took me a while to realize that though it can be hard or awkward at first, in the long run, people setting boundaries actually makes me feel safer and trust them more—because I know my problems aren’t going to overwhelm them.

    anon for him:

    I’ve had to come to accept that what is good advice for people in a normal mental state can actually be detrimental to clinical depression, something that is hard to understand for many in the church (and in my family).

    Thanks so much for sharing your experience. You know, I’ve dealt with depression for so much of my life that I at times have the opposite problem—I don’t always realize that some advice that’s detrimental for people suffering depression can be helpful in other circumstances. And it’s good for me to know that. So thanks for bringing up that distinction.

    LilyTiger:

    Finally, there are a handful of people in my life who plan low-key activities out of the house for me when I am in the midst of a depression. I never want to go but am almost always glad when I do. However, this can admittedly be tricky, should be done gently, and “No” still means “No.”

    That’s fabulous. I’m the same way—I rarely want to go do anything, but I’m usually glad when I do. As you say, it can be a tricky balance, but it’s great to have friends who can encourage me without being pushy.

    Elisadp:

    Are you trying to say that “snap out of it” is not a good cure for a broken leg? I can tell you are not a medical professional.

    Even better. I’m a theology professional. I can calculate the amount of faith and works needed to heal the broken leg.

    Beatrice:

    However, “you’re not a burden” is a tricky one for me. When I am depressed I feel like a big burden, but when people tell me I am not I have a tendency to think that they are lying to make me feel better. For me, it helps that the other person acknowledges that my depression can be challenging for them at times, but that overall they value their relationship with me and they want to support me anyway they can. For example, saying something like “I don’t always know what to say or do, but I love you and want to support you” is a very helpful thing for me to hear.

    I really, really like that. Sometimes I’ll say something to my therapist along the lines of, I worry that I’m annoying or frustrating you. And obviously he can’t say that that never happens, because of course it does. But what he’ll say is something like, even though there are times that are hard, I value you and our relationship enough to want to work through those times.

    Enna:

    I’m an isolater, too, when a mood episode kicks in, and it is so humbling and touching to look back and see people that stuck by me when I was trying to push them away. I know it’s unfair to expect that of everyone, which makes me even more amazed at those friends that did it for me. Even letting me take a break but still being there for me when I am ready again is a huge help to me.

    I’ve definitely been there. I push people away because I’m scared, or because I’m determined to be self-destructive and I don’t want anyone to stop me, or because I just want to hide. And I’m amazed by the people who stay around anyway.

    tkangaroo:

    I like your “Things Not To Say.” I think it works well for things not to say to single people, too.

    Lol—too true!

    TopHat:

    Lynette, If I ever say anything insensitive to you, feel free to tell me. My natural state is “foot in mouth” anyway.

    No worries! That’s pretty much my natural state as well. We can have a “foot in mouth” competition. ;)

    kaneabal:

    The things not to say category was very helpful, not just for what others may say but because I find myself saying those things to myself and then my cycle just continues to get worse.

    I hadn’t thought of that when I was writing the list—that’s a really good point. Part of the reason those things are so painful to hear is that I’ve already internalized them to some degree. So I like the idea of working on not saying them to myself, either.

    Tatiana:

    Depression can make people feel like everyone would be so much better off without them that they should be dead to relieve the burdens of others. Can I just say that depressed people’s brains tell them this all the time, and it’s a complete lie.

    Yes. It can be both amazing and kind of scary to see how much depression can distort your thinking—you really do find yourself believing things like, everyone would be better off without you. Which is one reason why, I think, it’s important to have people in your life who can challenge those kinds of assumptions. Thanks for sharing your much more positive perspective on people who are struggling with depression.

    Kevin Barney, Eve, amber_mtmc, Mary Siever, Rechabite, and East River Lady: I’m glad you liked the post. Thanks for all the kind words!

  19. 19.

    Word. Ten thousand times. I had friends “break up with me” because after I told them about my Depression, they worried too much, and it was a burden. It wasn’t my occasional visits or emails . . . it was the worrying. All I needed was someone I could be real with and who would be open with me, too. I’m sure you can imagine how much that interaction helped me.

  20. 20.

    I love that you are able to share all this with us. So awesomely helpful.

  21. 21.

    Thank you, Lynnette. You are a prophetess, and a gift to the world.

    And, I care about you. And I’ll keep caring, even when you make mistakes.

    ::Tries to think of any mistakes you’ve made. ::

    Err, so I’m drawing a blank. But hey, I’m sure they’re around somewhere. :)

    You are awesome and amazing, J, and you make people’s lives better. And I know this, because you’ve made my life better. Keep on keeping on, and big hugs to you.

    (Also, I am bummed that I’m going to miss your talk next month because of CGU time-conflict. Grr.

    Rest assured, I will be asking you about it, cause it sounds like good stuff. Also, I am sure I will make it up the coast some time soon, and I hope we can get mystery-Chinese food again. Cause that was fun.)

  22. 22.

    I super love your list, Lynnette, and I relate to all of it at least in part.. For me, the burden-thing and the isolating-thing combine in the most crippling way — I’m desperate not to be alone because I hate it, but also sure that just being around me is this monster burden for everyone so I should just hide forever, getting steadily more depressed, but then, that’s what I deserve. Yada yada.

    I wonder how differently this plays out for introverts vs. extroverts.

  23. 23.

    [...] By Lynnette [...]

  24. 24.

    Thank you! I needed this tonight.

  25. 25.

    […] Elisadp: […]

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