Maybe they don't want to leave home anymore, even for activities they used to enjoy. Maybe they’re sleeping all the time, or not enough. Maybe they seem to be using alcohol or other substances to cope with negative emotions. If you notice these or other signs of depression in a family member or friend, what should you do?
“Figuring out what to do, and how to talk to someone with depression, is definitely tricky,” says Reena Navuluri, MD, a specialist in family medicine and geriatric medicine at Rush Oak Park Hospital. But, she adds, these five approaches can help:
1. Ask open-ended questions
Often, the best way to start a conversation is to ask open-ended questions. Instead of saying, “Are you depressed?” — which might make them uncomfortable — you could say something like, “I've noticed you haven’t been coming out as much, and I’m wondering how you’re doing.” A question like this offers them more leeway to share in a way that feels comfortable to them.
2. Listen without giving advice
If a loved one does open up about negative emotions, resist the temptation to suggest solutions to the problem. “One of the best things you can do for someone with depression is listen,” Navuluri says. “The main thing the person needs is often to know someone who loves them is there for them.”
For that reason, she recommends avoiding advice and judgmental questions along the lines of “You have so much to live for” or “Why do you want to live like this?” Instead, it can be more helpful to simply acknowledge that they’re going through a rough time.
3. Watch for signs of suicide risk — and check in regularly
If you fear your loved one is at risk for self-harm or suicide, Navuluri recommends staying with them as much as you can, or asking someone else to check in on them. Signs that your loved one may be having thoughts of suicide include worsening symptoms of depression, as well as the following:
- Talking about wanting to die or take their own life
- Searching for or purchasing a means of suicide, such as a gun
- Saying that they feel hopeless, trapped or like a burden to others
If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK (8255). If you fear the risk is immediate, call 911.
One of the best things you can do for someone with depression is listen.
4. Stay alert to underlying conditions
Sometimes, especially in older adults, depression and anxiety can be related to other health problems, including cognitive issues. Further complicating matters, symptoms of depression and anxiety can sometimes mimic cognitive issues, even when there is no underlying condition. If your loved one seems to be having trouble thinking, a primary care provider can evaluate them to see if they might have a related mental health issue.
“Mental illness can definitely affect memory,” Navuluri explains. “And, once the mental illness is corrected or improved, sometimes memory symptoms improve as well.”
5. Support depression treatment and recovery
If your loved one is already in treatment or working toward recovery, there are still multiple ways to show support. If you’re their caregiver, you can help them remember to take prescribed medications and get to appointments. Even if you’re not, you can invite them to do activities they enjoy — which can improve mood, especially if physical exercise is involved.
But it’s important to be patient. Recovery for most people has ups and downs, so try not to be frustrated if your loved one still sometimes seems depressed.
How to help a child with depression
It can also be difficult to distinguish between depression and teenagers’ tendency to withdraw from parents. “Sometimes they’re in that teenager mode where they don't want to talk to their parents, but they're fine with their friends,” Navuluri says. “Other times, they might be showing more general signs of withdrawing.”
If you’re worried about your child — whatever their age — take them to a primary care doctor. “Let the doctor know ahead of time that you’re noticing your child withdrawing or losing interest in activities,” she recommends. That way, you won’t make your child uncomfortable by bringing it up at the appointment.
When you arrive, it’s usually best not to enter the exam room. “Kids often feel freer to discuss problems when parents aren’t present,” Navuluri explains. If the doctor does think depression may be an issue, they can recommend psychiatric care or counseling.
Don't forget to take care of yourself
Be patient with yourself, too. “Dealing with a loved one’s depression is very hard,” Navuluri says. “It can be exhausting to be confronted with negative emotions, or to feel that someone is not opening up to you.”
So make sure you take time to do things you enjoy and see people you love. You may also want to consider seeing a therapist or counselor. “Taking care of your own body and mind can make you a better support person or caregiver for a loved one with depression,” Navuluri says.