What started out as a straightforward website article has expanded to a collation of views and I want to thank the 60 individuals who shared their opinions and experiences about mental health support and mental resilience with me. You will see their words in italics alongside mine. Together, let us give you an insider’s view into the world of someone with symptoms of depression.
So what is depression, really?
Hallmarks of depression: Low mood, loss of interest in daily activities, unable to find pleasure in things we once enjoyed. Perhaps bouts of crying or even self-harm. Feeling unreasonably guilty about unimportant things. Feeling useless, worthless, a burden to those who love them. Having no feeling, seeing the world through a gray lens. Insomnia, or hypersomnia. Thoughts of suicide. This list is not exhaustive.
A diagnosis of major depressive disorder is based upon the person experiencing a certain number of intense symptoms over a period of 2 weeks.
How do I help a depressed person?
The Mental Health First Aid by NAMI’s algorithm begins with an “A’ for ‘Assess’.
Everyone is a unique individual, and depression by no means takes that away. A quick check of the person’s location and physical safety is a wise first step. Sussing out their state of mind, whether they are aggressive, upset, or angry and whether there are any triggers present helps us to frame the first step – beginning a conversation.
“spend time to help build an open space for the person, as a quiet constant, like a rock or a wall to lean on and support…”
Have you ever tried to talk to someone who was busily doing something else (e.g. fiddling with their phone, watching soccer..) and murmuring ‘yes’ when you ask a question before returning their attention to the screen?
Check your own mental state. Are you tired, grouchy, burdened by something else? Your emotions may spill over to the emotionally charged person. You may get angry or frustrated more easily. Awareness helps you keep your own emotions under control. Have a cup of coffee, chill, take care of yourself first.
A person suffering from depression already feels lonely and unheard, which may be no fault of yours, but you have a way to help this. Put down your phone, take a few deep breaths, center yourself.. and focus on the individual. Meet them in the eye, let them know you are there. Fully present with them, fully prepared to listen.
“…and maybe they will be able to think things through and find a way out on their own.”
We’re prepared to listen now. Let the person know you want them to tell you something. Some require a gentle “What’s up?” or better still, “How can I help?”. “Do you want to talk?”. Getting a “no” is by no means a failure. By appreciating that ‘no’ and keeping silent you have honoured their preference and given them space.
Listening with empathy means not judging. It means that you accept their feelings and perspectives and do not assert your own counter-argument. If you do not agree, then agree to disagree. It’s not about being patronising either and we hate being patronised.
“Remind me, please, that my existence and I are still worthy because, having a mental illness can sometimes convince persons in recovery that they’re no longer whole”
“Don’t relate the problem shared with yours. In fact, you don’t need to share your own personal experience and how you managed to overcome it. It’ll make the depressed person feel inadequate and a good-for-nothing who cannot even resolve their own problems when others can.”
“They just sat with me and said nothing but it was the warmest feeling at that time”
What do we do, when given the space and airtime, the person doesn’t want to talk? …. Dr Gary Chapman’s Five Love Languages® speaks of those who love by talking.. and those who love without using words. Simple acts of kindness like brewing a Milo or coffee – a young man I once knew would bring his wife iced water in a plastic cup, so it wouldn’t smash if she threw it in anger – just sitting together for a while are actions that show we are safe and supportive in helping someone with depression. Again, respect. Ask permission. Do not assume, and do not pour hot Milo down someone’s throat because it’s good for them!
Persons who are overwhelmed by depressive symptoms such as negative thoughts, lack of feeling. Being unable to find pleasure in things they used to do, they may need some encouragement in order to step out and reach for mental health support. Accompanying the person for a walk, a simple meal perhaps, watching TV together helps them feel that you are there. A more active person might go for a run or play a game of badminton, or some other game that comes in a box or a Playstation. Motivation can help the person bounce back through building mental health resilience.
“she would wait patiently for hours while I fight my battle to get out of the house just to go and eat.”
“My dad insisted on me helping him with chores when I just wanted to lie on the floor. I was upset. But I am grateful, he made the time pass faster”.
It may be surprising that most persons suffering from depression do know that they need professional help. When symptoms are overwhelming, a little push of motivation may be needed. Encourage and facilitate, wherever possible, for a visit to the professional mental health support of the person’s choice. If this is not possible, then the caregiver faces the need for tough love.
“My friend insisted that I see a psychologist or counsellor at school. He could tell that I wanted to but was scared to take the first step. He encouraged me and offered to go with me, and even reached out to the counsellor personally to ask if I could get an earlier slot (if not there would be a long waiting time of a few weeks). I think it was how invested he was in trying to help me that made me feel like someone cared for me, and it gave me a bit more hope”
Wellness planning encourages persons to create a plan specifying which mental health professionals they wished to see, and what kind of treatment they preferred. When shared with a caregiver who respects and follows through with the plan, the person with a mental health condition is able to retain control even when unwell.
I asked the peers I surveyed what was the best thing someone said or did for them when they were depressed. These poignant words illustrate what most of us really need when we’re down.
“One of my parents decided to take care of me during this time, by supervising me to prevent any acts of self harm or suicide. This was done by sharing a room with me at night, when the risk is greatest.”
“I think the best thing was when someone would show more interest in my emotions and ask more questions and be curious about it, while assuring me that the emotions were normal so I could let them out easily. I usually did this with a close friend over some comfort food and good beer”
“this may sound a bit self pitiful but true – I did not have anyone say anything to me. No one acknowledged my depression. 😔 But I think the best thing anyone can do is to give the person hugs to make them feel loved and safe.”
In conclusion, there are lots of ways to help a person who is depressed. Being present (I am here for you), listening with empathy (I hear you), showing support (can I give you a hug?), motivation (let’s do this together) and tough love (I’ll go to the doctor’s with you) are but some strategies for mental health support.
Peer support, not mentioned above, leads the person in distress to other people who walk the same path and find immense support in each other. And remember, always, the worst thing to do, is to tell a depressed person to “Snap out of it”!
Authored by: June Tang. June was a manager and founding staff of RC, June experiences mental health as a user, caregiver and professional and has a goal to bring more understanding among them all.