Often it is a friend, partner or family member who will notice changes and signs of depression or anxiety before the person themselves does, or feels able to talk about it.
Knowing what to notice, and what to do once you have noticed something might be wrong, is important in helping the person seek out the right sort of help or support as early as possible. Timely support can be critical in helping things turn around quickly, or preventing them from becoming unnecessarily worse.
You can find key information about what depression is, and how people might experience anxiety. Take a look at those pages that detail the signs and symptoms. Additionally, it might be worth looking at how depression and/or anxiety can be experienced in the context of a relationship.
What you can do to help
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, 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.
Talking to Someone
How does talking to someone help?
It can be hard to open up and be honest about how you are really feeling. People often put on a ‘front’ with others, pretending they are fine. This can leave the person isolated and feeling alone: wanting support but not knowing how to seek it out. Being there for someone is critically important and should not be under-estimated.
Being prepared to listen, without judgement or feeling that you have to ‘find the answers’, is probably one of the most important things you can do in supporting someone with depression and/or anxiety.
It can be helpful to let someone know you are interested in listening, keeping in mind some of the ways that talking to someone can make a difference:
It can be a great relief for someone to get things off their chest. For some people it helps a lot if they know things will be kept confidential (eg. talking to a professional).
Voicing thoughts or fears is very useful in making sense of them and putting them into perspective.
Dropping the mask, being honest and connecting with someone else on a real level helps to counter the isolating effect of depression.
Care and compassion
Letting someone know that you are willing to listen, to care and be compassionate will be very important in helping them to open up. Let them know that you will not reject, ridicule or judge them – but will instead be an empathic listener.
Depending on who you are supporting, you may be able to offer some useful help or advice – even if they decide not to take it!
Strategies and ways forward
Talking and openness shine a bright light onto depression’s distortions and lies. As people talk, they may start to develop understanding and strategies for tackling depression.
Different people offer different kinds of support, so talking to different people can help build up a useful support network.