When someone you care about is struggling with depression, it’s easy to feel helpless. Even if you normally don’t grapple with your mental health, everyone is feeling the effects of the pandemic. And for those who were aware of their depression before, the added layer of outcomes like death, job loss, and social isolation only makes things harder.
Clinical social worker Monica Piros knows that depression, whether an ongoing chemical battle or a situational result, presents in many ways. “People’s experience of the symptoms of depression is on such a spectrum,” she says. Which explains why it can be hard to watch out for those symptoms in someone else.
What Depression Can Look Like
Change, of course, is normal, but everyone has a baseline you can refer back to when looking out for signs of depression in a loved one.
Some signs to watch out for include:
- Behavioural change: Where before they were social, now your peer or loved one might isolate themselves, have trouble concentrating on work, or seem frequently irritable.
- Altered health habits: You might notice major swings in sleeping and eating patterns, too much or not enough
- Crying: This might be seemingly for no reason, or all of the time.
Some more serious signs:
- Indications of self-harm
- Talk of suicidal ideation
- Giving away possessions
If you notice any of these signs, don’t panic. There’s a lot you can do to support someone you care about through a period of depression, and there are many helpful resources to engage with.
How You Can Help
First, supporting someone with depression can be lonely, frustrating, and overwhelming unless you take care of yourself. “The most important thing is to be attentive to your own self,” says Piros. “That should be the first line of defence.” Think about it like an oxygen mask on a plane—put it on yourself before assisting someone else.
Once you’re sure you have the support you yourself need, you can try some of the following steps:
- Hold Space: A great way to show someone you care is to simply be there for them. Holding space for a loved one having a hard time demonstrates to them that they are not alone, and that there’s someone they can turn to. “You don't have to be a therapist to help someone who's struggling,” says Piros. “The most important thing is to show you’re available on their time in the way that works for them.” That last part is important—your offer of help should never come across as burdensome to someone experiencing depression. Meet them on their terms.
- Show Vulnerability: “We feel this compulsion to put on that brave face,” says Piros. “We think that being honest about having a struggle, or being forthcoming about not being OK reflects poorly on us.” Of course, this isn’t true, but the feelings of shame and stigma that can come along with depression tell us otherwise. “Start a dialogue in a way that someone doesn't feel uncomfortable or ashamed to talk,” says Piros. If you’ve been struggling as well, that could be a good entrypoint to a conversation that tells the other person what they’re feeling is normal.
- Offer Resources: Many times it’s easier to talk about really personal topics with a stranger rather than a trusted friend or romantic partner. That’s why resources can be such an effective tool. “There’s nothing wrong with being prepared in a conversation like this,” says Piros. “Knowledge is power; know what the resources are and be able to hand that on a piece of paper.” An action like this removes any potential embarrassment, leaves your loved one with something tangible, and takes something off their plate. “It’s saying ‘you don’t even need to look it up, here’s the number.’”
- Make a Safety Plan: For anyone exhibiting some of the more serious signs of depression, including if your friend, coworker or loved has spoken to you about feeling suicidal, making a safety plan shows you’re taking them seriously. “Ask, ‘when you’re feeling this way, can we make a plan about how to respond? Who will you call? Who do you want to reach out to?” says Piros. “It’s about letting people know that they have options.” The resource list comes in handy here, too—make sure to include a local crisis line number – like The Canada Suicide Prevention Crisis Service – that your loved one can call in an emergency situation.
If the person shares that they are considering self-harm and they have a plan; take them seriously. Listen and support, do not leave them. Call 911 or, if agreeable, take them to the nearest emergency room.
Ways to Care For Yourself While Supporting Others
This kind of caregiving can be very intense, and there’s a lot of pressure associated with helping someone through a period of depression. Some periods are long, and caregiver burnout is a reality.
Here are some things to remember if you begin to feel overwhelmed yourself:
- Respect Your Boundaries and Theirs: It’s easy to feel frustrated when you feel like your repeated messages of support are falling on deaf ears, but just because someone is depressed doesn't mean they can’t have boundaries too. “We do have to respect other people's boundaries,” says Piros. “Coming down hard on people who are struggling is not advisable.” Holding space and remaining patient when your own well has run dry can be very difficult, but that’s where your own boundaries come into play. You don’t need to make yourself available to someone 24/7, nor do you need to engage with someone when you know you don’t have the energy. Frame these breaks as wanting to be the most present you can be, so these pauses don’t feel like a personal rejection, but remember: put your oxygen mask on first.
- Don’t Get Offended: We want to think we’re the best people to help our loved ones—especially in parent/child or romantic dynamics—but the reality is, sometimes it’s just easier to talk to a person who’s not quite as invested. If your loved one seeks help from a community leader, a teacher, or even another friend or parent, remind yourself that just seeking help is a positive sign, no matter who it’s from. Try to think more collectively—your loved one has a circle of people who care for them, and as long as they’re getting help things are moving in a positive direction.
- Know It’s Not Your Responsibility: If you’re not a licensed professional, there’s only so much you can do. Someone experiencing suicidal ideation needs mental health support outside of the home. “Don’t feel like you have to be the end-all and be-all for that person,” says Piros. “We can’t take responsibility for the innermost thoughts and attitudes of the people we love. We’re not mind-readers.” Staying connected, showing up to listen, and providing the help you can without burning yourself out is really all you can do—and just showing up is doing a lot.
If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, please reach out for professional help. In an emergency, call The Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566. For ongoing support working through difficult thoughts and feelings, connect with an Inkblot therapist today.