We often hear people say they are depressed. But how do we know when the individual is truly dealing with a depressive disorder or simply generalizing the term to reflect feeling down? Understanding their feelings of depression may start with you asking a few questions and taking note of changes in their behaviors.
According to the Fifth Version of the Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM 5), a depressive disorder is a set of symptoms and behaviors that impacts a person’s functioning in their relationships, school, or work. When a loved one is dealing with depression, it’s important to understand what they may be going through and what actions you can take to show your care and support. Some of their symptoms may include:
- Sad, hopeless or irritable mood most of the day
- Significantly decreased interest or pleasure in activities previously enjoyed
- Changes in eating and appetite (over or under)
- Changes in sleeping patterns
- Body movement changes (slowed or restless)
- Fatigue and loss of energy
- Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- Poor focus and/or indecisiveness
- Thoughts of death or suicide ideation
Here are 10 actions you can take to help someone who is struggling with depression:
- Ask. “I notice you seem down lately, are you okay?” Don’t hesitate to ask in a kind way if someone is struggling. They will see that you care enough to do so, even if it is uncomfortable.
- Listen. Really listen to them without trying to fix things. They need you to hear them as they express how they are feeling, and not hear about your problems or what you think they should do.
- Empathize. After you know how they are feeling, it is helpful to empathize with them. “I am so sorry you have been feeling so bad. That sounds really hard.”
- Support. Offer support by asking what you can do to help. Would they like you to spend more time with them? Would it be helpful to attend an appointment with them or go for a daily walk together? Don’t take it personally if they refuse your offers – it opens a door for them to reach out in the future.
- Assess. Observe them and their environment. Do you notice a lot of changes from their usual self and space? How are they acting? How are they caring for themselves? Are they shying away from their normal activities? If you notice changes, do you need to ask someone else to get involved to help, like a parent, friend, sibling or spouse?
- Ask the hard questions. Are they safe? Don’t assume they are; ask them “have you had any thoughts about ending your life?” If they say yes, ask if they have a plan to do so. Watch for things like giving away prized possessions, getting access to things they could use to hurt themselves (pills, guns, knives), and a sudden improvement in mood. Sometimes these actions can be perceived as an indication that the person is feeling better, when in fact it can be a sign that they have resolved themselves to dying.
- Help them get professional help. Depression can be very serious and often requires professional support. Therapy can give them a place to talk about their feelings and thoughts, set goals and help them build new skills to improve their mood. Medication can be effective for many people, as can lifestyle changes. Sometimes more intensive services are needed to keep someone safe and functioning. A doctor’s appointment is a good first step. If they are at risk for suicide, it is important they are assessed at the ER or at a psychiatric hospital as soon as possible. You can assist them in getting help by offering to find a doctor or therapist in their area, setting up the appointment, or even attending appointments with them. It’s important that you convey you are there to support them and not force them. If you or a loved one need immediate help, please call 911 or the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.
- Be patient. If you have not struggled with depressive symptoms yourself, it can be confusing and frustrating to see someone unable to take the steps you think would help them feel better. Give them time and try to be patient and understanding.
- Keep in touch. Even if they refuse your support or seem to not respond to your efforts, stay in touch with them. Regular calls, texts and emails can remind them you continue to be there no matter what. This may be more important than you think.
Practice good self-care. When someone you care about is struggling with depression, it can cause a lot of anxiety and sadness for you, also. Talk to someone about your thoughts and feelings. Don’t try to be the person’s only source of help if it is getting overwhelming – find other caring individuals in the person’s life to get involved. Set boundaries and do the things that keep your mood stable to set a good example for the one you care about.
This blog article was contributed by Shawna Croaker, LCSW, Therapist and Director of Community-Based Services for Nexus-PATH, an agency of Nexus Family Healing.
Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.