The 10 Best Ways to Support Someone With Depression

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It’s the elephant in the room. Your spouse stops eating with the family and begins to isolate. Your sister is solemn, no longer laughing at your jokes. According to the National Network of Depression Centers, one in five Americans have firsthand experience with depression or another mood disorder, and 50 percent of people with depression are currently not receiving treatment. What can you do to help? As a person who has been there, I offer these 10 suggestions.

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Approach your loved one’s depression like a journalist

Education makes the difference between saying something helpful versus hurtful. Research your topic as if you were a journalist covering a story. An understanding of symptoms, causes, and treatment options are critical to framing your words in such a way that they are heard with compassion, not resentment. Depression is a complex illness. While you don’t have to be a neuroscientist to approach a friend or family member, education can help guide you to a loving response.

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Ask the right questions, including depression symptoms and triggers

With depression the terrain is vast—each person’s experience is unique. That’s why asking the right questions is crucial. Your friend may have had a suicide plan in mind for weeks, or she could merely be stressed at work. Channel Barbara Walters and begin the interview. Start with safety: “Do you have any intentions to hurt yourself?” Then get a timeline of symptoms: “When did they start? Any identifiable triggers? What makes you feel worse? Better?” Be gentle and tactful.

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Share family histories and important information

Family and friends can often see the wider picture of a loved one’s depression and therefore help him or her to place symptoms into proper context. Discuss any family histories of other health conditions, like thyroid and heart disease, that can affect depression and may need to be checked, or other information that may worth considering. Although a family history doesn’t predict a person’s outcome, it can lead to a better understanding and acceptance of depressive episodes.

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Help minimize stress

There’s no way around it: stress is bad stuff for depression. Chronic levels of stress pour cortisol into your bloodstream, causing inflammation in your nervous system and every other biological system. Help your loved one pinpoint sources of stress in his or her life and brainstorm about creative strategies to reduce it. Even small changes, like not taking a cell phone to bed or practicing deep breathing, can go a long way in promoting resilience.

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Guide your loved one to support

The buddy system not only works for Girl Scout camp. It’s effective for anyone struggling with a health condition. Knowing you’re not alone bolsters recovery and minimizes the risk of relapse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a study in which women who participated in a supportive-expressive therapy showed greater improvements in psychological symptoms than the group with no therapy. Help your loved one find support. Start with this HealthCentral list.

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Build confidence in your loved one

“When you’re depressed, you don’t believe that you’re worthy of love,” explains J. Raymond J. DePaulo, M.D. in Understanding Depression. Actually, you don’t believe you’re worthy of anything. Loved ones desperately need to be reminded of their strengths. That’s your job. Be specific. Mention times in their lives they exemplified courage, stamina, and perseverance. Share photos of accomplishments in the past that will bolster their confidence and encourage them down the path of healing.

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Use laughter, the ultimate healer

Laughter heals. It affords a person a momentary distance from the pain. One study published in The FASEB Journal showed that the addition of mirthful laughter may be an effective cardiovascular preventive adjunct in diabetes mellitus and metabolic syndrome care. Mental health professionals have recognized its value in treating depressive symptoms and show comedies in hospital psych units. Your assignment: make your loved one laugh.

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Provide a sense of hope

These four words impacted me most when I was depressed: “You will feel better.” Or you could say it this way: “You won’t always feel this way.” Both statements communicate hope, the most powerful healing element of all. As a friend or family member, your hardest job is to get your loved one to have hope again, to sincerely believe that his or her depression isn’t a permanent state, that they will return to their former selves—maybe even a stronger self—with time.

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Most importantly, just listen

If you do just one thing on this list, make it this: listen. Suspend all judgments, save all interjections. Do nothing more than make excellent eye contact and open your ears. In her bestselling book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes: "I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention.”

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Fasten your own oxygen mask

Remember to follow the guidance of flight attendants and fasten your own oxygen mask before trying to help your loved one. Otherwise you’ll run out of air. Many organizations offer support and resources for the friends and family members of persons with depression and other mood disorders. Check out Families for Depression Awareness, the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Family Center, and the National Alliance on Mental Illness Family Support Group.