How to support a loved one through depression

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One of the most important things that you can do for a loved one who is struggling with depression is to create space for them to be seen and supported just as they are, without trying to fix them. People are often disturbed by this statement because when you love somebody, you do not want to sit and watch them suffer--you want to make it better! But sometimes the "making it better" just furthers the distance between you and your loved one. What comes from the best of intentions often ends up creating more disconnect and isolation. I say this from my own experience. One of the most isolating and exasperating parts of my own depression has been people’s discomfort with my emotions. Their good intentions, but quick to “fixing” me or how I felt instead of just being with me through it. It was exhausting to always be "coached" on adjusting my mindset. Being told to look on the bright side. Being given a list of "good" things in my life that I "should focus on". Or, worst, people being totally resigned and telling me to get help or take meds (aka, get "fixed"). Sometimes suffering is beyond mindset, positive affirmations, looking at the big picture, etc. Sometimes there is trauma that needs to be truly felt to be released. Sometimes there are chemical imbalances. Perhaps both, perhaps more. Sometimes it is just something so incomprehensible to the person suffering that they don't know how to explain it for themselves, let alone explain it to someone else. (If it is frustrating for you to watch, imagine how frustrating it must be for them to live.) One of the pivotal moments of my life was the day I told my law school best friend that I just didn’t see the point of living anymore. I was in the middle of my longest, darkest period depression. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, but I had no clue how to get past it and I knew I needed help. I had been in therapy for a while but still hadn't found the courage to talk to anyone in my life about it. She was the first person I felt safe being so honest with, and her response changed me on a chemical level. She didn’t react or act uncomfortable, she simply said, “I know you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, but I promise you it is there. And I will hold your hand through the dark until you can see it again.” Then she asked me more about my experience with curiousity and without judgment or shame. She told me none of it was right or wrong and that she just wanted to better understand what I was going through so she could support me. For the first time in a long time (maybe ever), I felt truly seen and supported, just as I was. My depression felt so much smaller. She always reminded me that the light was there, but she never told me how to find it or urged me to hurry up and find it. She stayed true to her word and held my hand through the darkness. Over time, talking about it became normal. I felt less shame and judged myself less. I felt less isolated by it. I started opening up to more people about it (and I stopped caring so much when they reacted with discomfort or "coaching"). It has been less than a year since I was able to tell her that I see the light again. I can't say whether it will stay or fade or what my future experience with the darkness will be, but I can say that I know I will be ok no matter what--now I know that the light is always there. More importantly, I know that I don't have to walk through the dark alone.

What You'll Need

  • Grace
  • Patience
  • Love

What You'll Do

  • When someone tells you that they are struggling with depression (or maybe that they are just going through a really hard time and have been suffering), try your best to not react and add more emotional charge to the situation.
  • Be curious. Ask them what their experience has been like. Create space for them to be seen without judgment.
  • Tell them that it is OK for them to not feel OK.
  • Tell them that you support them. Ask them if there is anything that you can do for them beyond just being by their side. Remind them that you will stay by their side as they ride out the storm.
  • Remember that if this is truly depression or if they are going through a dark night of the soul, this experience may last a while. Try not to put expectations on when they will "get better" or how they will "get better". Have faith that they will when the time is right for THEM.
  • And, of course, remember to take care of yourself and keep healthy boundaries. Supporting someone does not mean carrying their emotional burdens for them.

Tips & Warnings

  • **If someone is telling you that they are actively considering suicide or if you are worried that the person might harm themselves, please seek counsel from a hotline or a trained professional.
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