Depression is a debilitating illness and one that can feel overwhelming to the sufferer. The depressed person's family and loved ones can also feel overwhelmed. We love the depressed person and want them to feel relief from the agonizing pain they are in. We try to help. We try to help in ways we think are helpful. We don't usually know what is helpful. This is the difficult truth we face, helplessly trying to hold someone up and keep them from sinking. Many well- intentioned interventions actually result in the depressed person falling further into depression.
It is imperative not to give up hope. Making sure your depressed family member is getting the support and professional help they need is a priority. Even with a good plan in place it can be difficult to communicate with them during their depression. You may be afraid you will say or do the 'wrong thing'; this is a common fear. Here are three ideas/strategies that have proven effective in working with family members who are depressed. Depression can look different case by case and can run a range from mild and episodic to severe clinical depression. These strategies are effective regardless of severity or perceived severity of the depression.
1. Do Not Minimize
Depression is a multifaceted illness and needs to be addressed in a similar way. A depressed person needs to find counseling, have a support system, learn healthy coping tools and possibly take medication. As a part of that support system, it's important not to inadvertently minimize their struggle.
Messages that say 'it's not that bad', 'everyone gets depressed', or 'just get over it', whether well intended or not, only serve to make the depressed person feel minimized. Depression drains a person of energy, optimism, and motivation. It’s not a matter of will power or snapping out of it.
Look at their illness as a serious condition, but one that with the right intervention can get better. If you minimize the illness, they are less likely to accept your words of support. If you take the illness seriously and empathize with their feelings on how difficult it is for them, they will more readily trust any optimistic statements you make. This is important because they need to have the optimistic positive support.
Here are some suggestions of ways to start a conversation in a way to keep them from becoming defensive or shutting down:
2. Let Them Know You are There by Their Side
One of the strongest messages you can give is one that recognizes, at the same time, that this is a serious situation and that you will be right there with them as they go through it. You will be right there as needed, as they make it through to the other side of the depression. When they see you as a non-judgmental ally, they will feel your support.
A depressed person usually does not respond well to pressure tactics, but healthy suggestions are welcome. Suggestions can be most effective when presented as an invitation. Invite them to ride bikes or workout with you rather than telling them to go. Yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation can all be helpful for a depressed person, offer to share any of these with them. The difficulty will be in getting them to agree to do it. Try to remain positive, and gently persistent but do not push. Try to paint a sincere picture in their minds that it will be a positive stress free experience for the two of you. Of course, you may not be able to share every experience you suggest, but if possible it will help.
Remember, being supportive involves offering encouragement and hope. Very often, this is a matter of talking to the person in language that he or she will understand and respond to while in a depressed mind frame.
Here are some examples of things to say:
“Tell me what I can do to help you now”
“You are important to me”
“Your life is important to me”
“You may not believe it now, but how you are feeling will change”
“I’m right here for you”
Here are some things NOT to say:
“It’s all in your head”
“There’s nothing I can do about your situation”
“You need to snap out of it”
“We all feel depressed sometimes”
“You just need to think positive”
“Look at the bright side”
“Shouldn’t you be better by now”
3. Give them Positive and Realistic Hope
Messages that begin with empathy and end with a hopeful statement can really resonate with the depressed person and produce a renewed sense of hope. You may have noted that it can be difficult to speak with your depressed loved one sometimes. They may be silent or lash out in an angry way. Do not take this personally. Depressed people often lash out in a negative way and say hurtful things, it’s best to see this as part of the illness.
There is no way to guarantee you will not get an angry response regardless of your approach, but starting with empathy and ending with hope is a good format. “I know you are not feeling well, but we would love if you would join us for dinner, it’s nice to see your face at the table, and who knows? It may even help you feel a little better.” You start with acknowledging that you are aware of how he/she is feeling and understand and follow with the request. Next, add a positive statement about him/her, and conclude with a hopeful statement about the action possibly helping him/her feel better. This may not seem much different than “Come down and join us for dinner, you've been up in your room all day, it will make you feel better”, but the impact will be greatly different. In this second approach, you start with a command, which will be met defensively as he/she may think “I can’t”. 'You have been up in your room' may simply be a statement of fact from your perspective, but the depressed person will see it as negative judgment and further cause him believe you do not understand. At this point, he is very defensive, so the 'it will make you feel better' will come across as almost an ignorant insult to him, 'how do you know? No it won't’ he may think.
Utilize these three suggestions for approaching your depressed family member on a day to day basis during their depression. These suggestions are to help you with the 'how', as you assist them through the process of setting up counseling, learning coping skills, and keeping connected and as active as possible.
Be a compassionate, positive, supportive and non-judgmental listener rather than giving advice.
You can’t “fix” someone else’s depression. Don’t try to rescue your loved one from depression. It’s not up to you to fix the problem, nor can you. You’re not to blame for your loved one’s depression or responsible for his or her happiness (or lack thereof). Ultimately, recovery is in the hands of the depressed person.
Having a full range of tools and approaches to help your loved one can add up to better results. There are some therapeutic products that help as well. I was amazed at the positive effect of therapeutic weighted blankets.
These blankets can be used in bed or as something the person drapes over them as they sit. They work to soothe the parasympathetic nervous system and ease the anxiety that usually goes along with depression. They create a sense of safety and have been shown to stimulate greater production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter known as the calming chemical) and melatonin in the user. I would suggest not to cheap out on it as some seem to more effective than others. These blankets have been marketed toward use with children but can be equally effective in adults and teens.
Visit our shop at www.facebook.com/relationshipstore to get your weighted blanket today and see our other great products!
With 25 years of experience working with couples as a licensed clinical counselor, Tim O'Donohue lays out an effective plan to get 100% back in your relationship.
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