The recent deaths of designer Kate Spade and television star Anthony Bourdain teach us that no amount of money or fame can cure clinical depression. Depression is a complex disease that takes many forms, but the one thing depression does not do is discriminate. Depression can impact anyone at any time. And because of the stigma surrounding mental health issues in our society, many who suffer do so in silence.
That’s why it is incumbent upon all of us to check in with our loved ones regularly. Helping a friend with depression is not easy, but knowing the warning signs of suicidal intent and depression has the potential to save lives.
Create a Safe and Supportive Environment
Whether we admit it or not, our feelings are sensitive. And one of the reasons so many people with depression suffer in silence is because of the reaction they get when they confess how they are feeling. Those suffering from depression too often are told to cheer up. And telling a depressed person to “just cheer up” is akin to telling someone with a broken leg to just go run a marathon.
Instead, let your friends know that you are open to listening to them no matter how they may be feeling. Reassure your loved ones that you will listen to them without judgment no matter what they may confess. Remember that many victims of depression don’t even necessarily know they are suffering from a mental illness. Let them know you’re accepting of their behavior, and that you want to help them be the best they can be.
Educate Yourself About Depression
Depression and all mental illnesses can strike anyone at any time of life. However, incidents of depression are particularly common among young adults whose brains are still developing even when their bodies are mature. Depression is also more common among women, and is one of the number one causes of low energy in females. Many women who constantly complain of being too tired often suffer from undiagnosed depression. Considering that depression messes with sleep cycles, it isn’t surprising that depression often masks itself as fatigue.
While women tend to internalize depression as fatigue, men often express depression as anger or aggression. This is particularly important to note because even psychologists frequently fail to recognize that extreme irritability in men may actually be masking underlying depression. If a man in your life who was previously sanguine starts acting particularly irritable, pay attention. There may be more going on than a case of feeling crabby.
Listen to Understand – And Express That You Want To
A frequent statement by those who are depressed is, “Nobody understands, so why bother?” Conversely, it can be simple for those of us who have experienced mild depression or temporary depression to say that we understand. While we may be able to relate to some point, simply saying that we understand often causes the depressed individual to feel as if we are dismissive of their experience.
Instead, open the lines of communication. Ask your friend or loved one to explain how they’re feeling to you, and let them know that you truly wish to hear them and understand what they are going through. Then, zip it, and let them speak. Avoid the tendency to jump in with your own experience; instead, ask open-ended questions to get them to open up further. A simple, “And how did such-and-such make you feel,” can go much further than simply offering sympathetic platitudes of understanding. Remember, listening is more powerful than speaking.
Help Your Friend Get Involved in Positive Activities
People suffering from depression often will not initiate social contact. Because they feel alone and isolated on top of having low energy, they simply can’t reach out. That’s why, if you love someone with depression, you should take the initiative to invite them to events that will get them moving and involved with others.
There’s a meme of the cartoon character Eeyore floating around the internet which reads that even though he is clinically depressed, his friends still involve him in everything and never expect him to be happy or in a better mood. They just enjoy his presence. This is a great way to look at helping a friend with depression. Even just doing small things with them, such as having a cup of tea with them at their house or playing games online with them one night a week can have a huge positive impact. One option is to play Catan online with them so that they have something fun and enjoyable to look forward to. Giving them something to look forward to can be that little thing that keeps them going, even if it seems insignificant to you.
When a depressed person has turned down one too many invites, it’s easy to stop asking them out of fear of rejection. Ask anyway. They may feel better, at least temporarily, and you’ll hopefully let them know that they still have friends to come to if they need it.
Watch for Warning Signs of Suicide and Know When to Get Help
Depression is a very real disease which often requires medical treatment. Oftentimes, urging your loved one to seek help or accompanying them to therapy is enough. However, there are times when immediate intervention is necessary, such as when someone you love experiences sudden onset depression. Know the signs of suicide, and be ready to take swift action.
Warning signs of suicidal intent include a preoccupation with death, including researching ways to die. In addition, those at risk of suicide may either become extremely withdrawn, or, on the other end of the spectrum, they may talk at length about how much pain they’re in and how badly they want the pain to stop.
If a loved one exhibits behavior such as giving away favorite possessions or even confesses a plan to kill themselves, do not hesitate in helping them. Offer to help them call a crisis line or call one yourself and ask for advice. As a last resort, contacting authorities to do a safety check on your friend may be embarrassing, but a spot of embarrassment pales compared to doing nothing and later learning your loved one ended their life.
It can be difficult to know what to do when a friend or loved one is depressed or even suicidal. The most important thing to remember is to be sensitive, to listen openly and to take action if a threat of self-harm is made. With proper education, we can work toward reducing the suicide epidemic in America.