Be clear about your limits
There are many ways in which you can offer helpful support to someone who may be depressed. However it is important that you are realistic about what you can’t do.
Be realistic with yourself and honest with the person about what your limits are. Depression is best dealt with by a professional. Don’t take on more than you can handle. Being clear about when and how you are available makes it easier to avoid blow ups or burn out.
It is unwise to find yourself the sole source of support, so make it clear that you won’t do this. Make sure that the person starts to build a support network of friends and family, as well as other appropriate help.
What you can do to help
However, there are many things that you can do to help:
Communicate your concern
Isolation and lack of support are key factors in depression. Letting the person know you are worried could be a key first step in breaking that isolation.
Be both sensitive and persistent
Depression affects a person’s thinking patterns and sense of perspective. They may be unaware that they are affected or at risk. Don’t be surprised if their initial response is abrupt or rejecting. Do persevere in showing you care.
Encourage professional help
Help the person to identify and approach the available sources of professional and other local help – university health centre or local GP doctor, counselling service, student union welfare or other peer support programme, academic pastoral support system, mentoring schemes etc.
Ask the person what would be helpful
Don’t assume you know what would be most helpful – help which is respectfully negotiated is much more likely to be taken up.
Learn about depression
It is not possible to ‘snap out’ of depression and there are no simple solutions. Read about strategies for tackling depression on this site or in one of the books listed. Pass on what you have learnt and help the person find what works for them.
Check out suicidal thoughts
If you are at all concerned about this, don’t be afraid to ask the person directly whether they have any suicidal thoughts. Contrary to popular belief, this is unlikely to ‘put ideas in their head’ but may well instead offer them the relief of being allowed to talk about a taboo subject.
However, do not feel you have to do this – it can be very shocking and disturbing to hear about a loved one’s suicidal thoughts. Also, never agree to keep it to yourself. Suicidal thinking is serious and needs professional support.
Offer practical, day-to-day support
Friends or family members are well placed to offer the kind of ongoing social contact and connection which provides an important buffer against depression. For example:
- Make a regular arrangement for coffee/a walk/a phone call.
- Set aside time to hear how the person is feeling, without advising.
- Accompany them to make a doctor’s or counselling appointment.
- Let them know you care – verbally or by gesture (eg. cook a meal).
- Respect their need to be ‘normal’ sometimes and not talk about it.
- Continue including them in social arrangements, but don’t push too hard.
Get support for yourself
Remind yourself that you cannot take on responsibility for keeping another person safe or making them happy – that responsibility is ultimately theirs. Make sure you are properly supported. It can be extremely stressful living with or caring about a person affected by depression.