Helping Someone - Who Is Depressed

Last Editorial Review: 8/14/2002

Depressed people can be very difficult to be around, and yet they need more than the usual understanding and support from their friends and family.

The anger and lack of trust that a depressed person may have for people close to him or her is very disturbing to someone who is trying to help. At such times, the sincerity of a friend is questioned when the depressed person doesn't feel worthy of someone's friendship. Withdrawal from others, even when very lonely, can make it nearly impossible to encourage a depressed person to enter into activities that may help pull him or her out of the depression.

It is frequently difficult for a depressed person to carry on a conversation. Attempts to help may be met with defensiveness and verbal attacks. Frequently questioning him or her about the condition may be met with crying and frustration, simply because the person may not know what is wrong. Reassurance is important, although it can become a drain on the encouragers.

While being supportive and understanding, the friend must be careful not to do things that fulfill any unreasonable or unrealistic needs on the part of the depressed person. There is a very thin line between being supportive and being overly protective. Too much concern can feed an unrealistic demand for attention. Performing too many tasks for someone who "just can't seem to get things done" can bring about great dependency and also guilt over being indebted to someone else.

You can best help a friend or relative who is depressed by considering the following points:

  • Do not moralize. Do not pressure him or her to "Put a smile on your face," or to "Snap out of it." Often the person will feel even worse after hearing such statements. Do not expect a "quick fix."
  • Be available. When you are alone with your depressed friend, you might say something like, "I have noticed lately that you seem down. I care about you. I'm willing to listen." Then be a good listener.
  • Don't say, "I know exactly how you feel." You probably don't. But if you've had similar experiences, sharing those may help. Say things like, "This is what helped me. It might help you," or "I know some of what you must be feeling."
  • Urge him/her to get professional help if necessary. Offer to accompany your friend to the first visit if it will be easier for the person.
  • Listen and watch for signs or threats of suicide. Sometimes people who are thinking about killing themselves give away cherished belong-ings or say something like, "After I'm gone...," "Are the insurance policies up-to-date?" "Would you take care of my pet if...?" If you think suicide is an immediate possibility, do not leave your friend. Contact a mental health professional for help as quickly as you can.

To Find Help

  • Ask people you know (your physician, clergy, etc.) to recommend a good therapist;
  • Try local mental health centers (usually listed under mental health in the telephone directory);
  • Try family service, health, or human service agencies;
  • Try outpatient clinics at general or psychiatric hospitals;
  • Try university psychology departments;
  • Try your family physician; or
  • Look in the yellow pages of your phone book for counselors, marriage and family therapists, or mental health professionals.

For more information, please visit the Depression Center.

Medical Editor: William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

(Source: Center for Disease Control, Clemson Extension)

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