How to support friends and family with depression

August 4, 2014
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Know someone experiencing depressed mood? Unfortunately most of us do- The World Health Organisation (WHO) suggests that approximately 350 million people are experiencing depression.

Characterised by low mood, sadness, reduced pleasure and interest in previously enjoyed activities, sleep and appetite disturbance, low motivation and suicidal ideation, it is no wonder that individuals experiencing depression also report feelings of worthlessness and helplessness. While some people report that their depression has been triggered by a traumatic event or by difficult circumstances in their environment, others have experienced quite chronic low mood and cannot recall a time in which they felt happy or ok.

Depression not only affects the sufferer- it also affects the people around them. This is why treatment for depressed mood should not only provide the individual with strategies to best manage their mood but also provide recommendations to family and friends who need to look after themselves whilst support the needs of the person that they care about.

Below are a short list of recommendations for family and friends who are close to someone experiencing depression.

Looking After Yourself

Know that saying- you can’t love someone else fully if you don’t love yourself? Well the same applies for mood. That is, it is difficult to support the needs of someone else if you are not ok yourself. Protecting and managing your own mood is just as important as helping the person that you care about.

  • Physical Health: Ensure that you are looking after your own physical health by eating nutritious meals, exercising and practicing good sleep hygiene. Not only will this be good for your own health but is good role modelling for your friend or family member who is depressed (exercise, nutrition and sleep have a direct impact on quality of mood).
  • Support in Moderation: It can often take someone months to work through their depressed mood and get better. It is important that you balance supporting their needs with ensuring that you have time to engage in your own activities and commitments. Work on quality of support rather than quantity.
  • Engage in Pleasurable Activities: Research has shown that depressed mood can impact negatively on the mood of others. Following the provision of supporting someone with depressed mood, go and do something pleasurable for yourself to stimulate positive mood.
  • Challenge your Negative Thoughts: One of the things that we know in the treatment of depressed mood is that the individual experiencing depressed mood needs to have their own internal motivation for change to get better. That is, you cannot fix your friend’s or family member’s depression- you can only support them though it and provide suggestions. If you have negative thoughts about what you may have done to trigger the depressed mood or your responsibility to shift the depression for them, remind yourself that it is something that you have no direct control of. (Responsibility can apply however if someone has engaged in a behaviour that seeks to make the depressed person’s life difficult or traumatic).

Supporting your Depressed Family Member or Friend

There are a number of recommendations for supporting someone through depression

  • Be willing to engage in dialogue about the person’s mood. That is, if you notice symptoms consistent with depressed mood, ask them about it and let them know that you are concerned for them.
  • Let him/her know that you care and are there for him/her.
  • Encourage them to seek help by speaking to their GP or an appropriate health provider such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, counsellor or therapist.
  • Encourage him/her to exercise including going for a walk or going to the gym. Offer to go with them.
  • Suggest enjoyable activities to leave and house and engage in such as going to the beach, the movies, a museum, the park.
  • Gently discuss the factors contributing to the depressed mood (eg work stress, family issues, friendship difficulties, finances, poor sleep, low self-esteem) and encourage them to problem solve through these to see if they can find some relief from symptoms
  • Encourage hopeful  and positive thoughts. Depressed individuals can also be quite catastrophic and extreme in the extent of their thoughts- try to help them see the situation in perspective.
  • In circumstances where you are concerned for someone’s safety- you may need to alert the person’s close family or doctor and encourage them to seek formal help. Offer to attend the appointment with them if you think they are more likely to attend this way.
  • Become familiar with Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) basic principles and encourage him/her to engage in these strategies (note: the Cloud Clinic App is an easy to use CBT program with videos on the Cloud Psychology website providing instructions on how to use).