Ways to Help Someone with Depression: Listening & Understanding

Medical Reviewer

We can support someone who is depressed in a variety of ways but for this Sharepost my focus is on listening and understanding. These are two of the most important emotional support mechanisms we can provide and go a long way in helping the person feel they are understood and still of value.

People differ in the extent to which they feel able or capable of offering support. Sometimes the issue boils down to a genuine lack of understanding about what the person is experiencing, sometimes its fear, sometimes it's insensitivity and a lack of willingness to get involved. Others are better at giving practical support and some offer well-intentioned but often counter-productive support.

There's no point pretending that living with a depressed person is anything other than difficult. There are no wounds to see, no scars, no rash or any sign that tells us something is wrong. With no insight into the disease of depression it must be tempting to consider the person's behavior as self-absorbed and within their gift to change. Fortunately, we know better, but there are some tips and techniques we can all use to ensure that support is consistent and conveys the ight message.

One of the first things we can offer is a sense of understanding that the person is in real distress and feels a constant burden. You must however be prepared for the fact that sympathy is often likely to result in an outpouring of sorrow. This may be difficult for you to cope with and listen to, but it usually gives some relief to the person who is suffering. So what should you expect and how should you respond?

  • If the person cries a great deal, don't try to distract them or interrupt it. Crying is a natural process that often has its own healing properties.
  • Show positive feelings. Someone who is depressed has a very sensitive radar to indifference or negative 'vibes' from people around them.
  • Your body language is another cue to interest. You may find yourself hearing the same story more than once, but if you look distracted or bored it is very likely to be picked up as a sign of lacking sympathy or interest.

This last point is one of the important features of listening. Listening isn't just about being within earshot of someone who is talking, it's about showing you are specifically focused on that person and that you are hearing what is being said. We call this process active listening.

Because of the nature of depression you will probably hear things you don't agree with, especially when the person is feeling their worst. This is a time you shouldn't try to question, disagree with or judge what you're hearing. A depressed person is in no state of mind to deal with a dispute and the negative emotions that stir up as a result of an argument will make them feel worse and will do nothing for you.

If you don't live with the person you can telephone them to maintain contact. It often gives the person a little boost to know they are being thought of and that their welfare is your concern. Relieving depression can't be rushed so steer clear of overly-optimistic statements like, "by next week things will look so much better" as arbitrary time frames or comparison with other people simply adds stress to an already difficult time.