For friends and family - depression

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Understanding depression and how you can help

Is someone you care about currently dealing with depression? Your support can play an important role in helping them cope and feel better.

It’s common to feel stuck between wanting to help and not knowing how. Even if you don’t know where to begin, or what will help, often simply being there for them can mean a great deal.

On this page you will find practical steps you can take to support someone with depression.

Caring for someone struggling with their mental health can be challenging, tiring, and sometimes frustrating. It’s really important to remember:

  1. Ultimately, we can’t always help someone else. You might try your best and do everything you can without them improving, and that’s not your fault or your failure
  2. Some people might not want help, or not be ready for it, and that’s their choice to make. Sometimes the best you can do is to let them know you’re there if they change their mind
  3. Always remember to look after yourself. You can’t pour from an empty cup, so being aware of your own needs and practicing self-care should always come first.

How can you recognise if someone is experiencing depression?

Depression can look different for everyone, and isn’t always easy to spot from the outside. The emotions can be hard to put into words, but your friend or family member may say they are feeling any of the following:

  • Helpless or hopeless
  • Worthless
  • Guilty
  • Angry or irritable
  • Sad, down, or low on energy.

Depression can make it hard for someone to share their feelings, so if they’re not expressing themselves with words, you might also notice other changes. They might:

  • Disconnect from others, or isolate themselves
  • Express lower self confidence, or think they’re a burden on others
  • Spend extended periods of time in bed, or seem constantly tired
  • Experience changes in their appetite, or lose or gain weight
  • Struggle with basic concentration or staying focused on simple tasks
  • Struggle to keep commitments or maintain routine
  • Increase their use of drugs or alcohol
  • Have emotional or physical outbursts
  • Find it hard to maintain personal hygiene or keep a clean home.

If you notice these changes in your friend or family member, it may be time to check in with them.

If you are unsure if someone you know is experiencing depression, we have more information about understanding depression here. If you’re still unsure about whether you should offer support, it’s usually best to simply ask the person if you can help, in a non-confrontational and non-judgemental way.

How to help

Sometimes, we can feel a need or responsibility to “fix” someone who is experiencing depression. However, most people want to have control over their own life and their own decisions, so it’s important to respect their choices and boundaries. It’s usually most helpful to play a supportive role through non-judgemental conversation, and helpful actions.

  • Start a conversation

    Often one of the most powerful things you can do for a friend or family member is to let them know that you’re there for them.

    Knowing how and when to have this important conversation can be tricky.

    Here are a few tips:

    • Try to create time for the conversation. This might mean suggesting a walk or other activity that gives you the time to talk, without distractions. It might mean waiting until the end of an event when you have time to yourselves.
    • Gently let them know that you care about them, and want to help
    • Listen and be curious about their experience. Give them space to share if they choose to. You can ask open questions such as ‘how are you feeling?’ or ‘what’s going on for you at the moment?’
    • Sometimes it can help to open up about your own experiences, which can ‘give permission’ to your friend or family member to also share. Being vulnerable can be hard, but it’s easier if you’re both in the same boat.
    • Rather than jumping to solutions, it can be helpful to ask what they need from you in that moment. You might ask something like ‘would you like me to just listen right now, or would you like help thinking about what you might do from here?'
    • Try to resist the urge to paint a silver lining, or minimise their concerns. Instead, it can be helpful to validate their experience by saying things like ‘it sounds like you are going through a really tough time right now’ or ‘that must be so difficult for you’.

    It can be really hard for people to open up, especially the first time, so don’t be disheartened or hurt if your friend or family member doesn’t want to talk about it.

    You might like to gently let them know that you’re still there if they change their mind, or if there’s something you can do in the future.

Dr. Brené Brown explains how to be truly empathetic through getting in touch with our own fragilities.

  • Offer practical support
  • Try and spend more time with them
  • Support them to seek help

Looking after yourself and your own mental health

It can be really hard to support someone struggling with their mental health. They may require extra attention or specific support that especially impact the people around them. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, you are not alone, and there are support services available specifically for anyone who supports those with mental health issues (also known as a carer).

Remember that ‘you can’t pour from an empty cup’. The best way you can care for someone else, is to make sure you are okay first. Looking after yourself as a carer means being tuned in to how you’re feeling, and looking after yourself when you need to.

This might include:

  • Setting healthy boundaries
  • Share your caring role
  • Talk to people with similar experiences

Actively practice self-care

  • Be kind to yourself

    Being kind to yourself while caring for others is really important. You might feel frustrated, stretched, or even powerless, but adding shame or guilt to those emotions by criticising yourself will only make you feel worse.

    It’s ok to reduce the expectations you’ve set for yourself, and to take a break when you need it.

  • Eating well
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Avoiding substances
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Getting out into nature
  • Developing a routine
  • Engage in your hobbies
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