It’s often obvious when someone you love is suffering from depression, but what’s not always clear is how and if you can help. You may worry about overstepping boundaries, but depression is serious business, and it's riskier to stay silent than to offer help—even if your friend or loved one isn't quite ready to accept it. Depression manifests in different ways, but if you notice behavioral changes that may indicate someone is struggling, there are several important steps you can take.
1. Ask if you can help. Opening the lines of communication is a harmless and potentially very effective way to offer help. Explain why you're concerned, and ask if there's anything you can do. And choose your words carefully, cautions Dr. Mollie Kelly Thomas, a clinical psychologist in Birmingham, Ala., and a member of the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Avoid the term "depression," which can put people off and make them defensive. "You can start off by saying that you notice they haven't been themselves lately and ask them how they are doing," Thomas says. "This needs to be done in an open-ended and non-judgmental way.”
2. Just listen. Everyone needs to feel heard, and offering a listening ear to a friend or loved one who is depressed might be the most helpful thing you can do. "Sometimes just talking about being depressed to someone who listens actually makes things better," says Thomas. "When emotional pain is shared, it is more bearable." Make sure that when you listen, you truly listen: Avoid the temptation to offer quick fixes or unsolicited advice, and simply be a sounding board.
3. Choose your words carefully. Even with the best of intentions, it's possible to do or say something that could actually make the depressed person feel worse. Avoiding those pitfalls is essential in order to get the desired results—help for your friend. Thomas offers some caveats on what not to do:
- Don't try to reason somebody out of their depression by saying things like, “What do you have to be depressed about?” or “Other people have it so much worse.” Depression is an illness, and you cannot simply try to use logic to get your friend to feel better.
- While it may help to let them know that you may have struggled with difficult emotions too, Thomas says, “don't say you know how they feel."
- Don't ask the person to justify why they feel the way they feel.
- Avoid platitudes like, "Try to focus on the positive," or "Be strong."
4. Act if you sense danger. If you see signs that your friend or loved one is a danger to themselves, it's time to take a stronger stance. These signs can be behavioral, such as significant personality change, social withdrawal, giving away items of significance and reckless or self-harming behavior. Or they can be verbal: talking about feeling hopeless or helpless, saying everyone would be better off without them, or bringing up suicide. These circumstances may call for you to contact the person's parents or significant other, Thomas says, or "it may mean taking them yourself to a mental health professional or even to the hospital, depending on the situation. They might be angry initially but will be grateful for it later."