Helping a Friend or Family Member Who Is Depressed
BY Benjamin Ryan
November 17 2010 4:00 AM ET
If you’re not a psychotherapist, you may feel at a loss for what to do to help a friend of family member who is suffering from depression. He may even rebuff your every attempt at contact, since one of the hallmarks of depression is a self-defeating tendency to isolate from others. Ultimately, the most effective, proven method of treating depression is through talk therapy, antidepressant medications, or a combination of both. Otherwise, here are a few things you can do to lend a helping hand:
Get through and engage. “Because depression is a disease of isolation and also because depression has such stigma, a lot of times people suffer silently and don’t even know what they have,” says David McDowell, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan. “So I think the important thing is not to berate your friend or loved one if they’re depressed. But it’s important to point it out to somebody, ‘I think you’ve got depression. I think you need to think about this.’ Because they may not have thought of it.”
Be forgiving if he doesn’t return calls or seems dismissive. “One can be more over-looking of the rude behavior of a depressed friend,” says Jack Drescher, author of Psychoanalytic Therapy and the Gay Man. “Don’t take it personally. You can still try and engage the person. Not every minute; don’t force yourself. But still stay engaged, stay in touch, and don’t give up on them.”
Encourage seeking help and offer your assistance. “I think that saying to your friend or loved one, ‘I’ve noticed that this isn’t just that you’re sad, I’m wondering why you’re completely isolated, I think you need to ask your doctor about depression,’” says McDowell. “Going with your friend to the doctor is more welcome than most people think it is.”
Keep their spirits up until treatment is working. “The goal is to keep the person engaged and involved until the medications and other factors start working,” says Drescher.
Provide him with literature on depression. “There’s a lot of good educational material: good books to read to make people aware of depression,” says McDowell.
Listen. “It’s being understanding, being patient, recognizing that people with depression may not know how to reach out for social support,” says John Pachankis, assistant professor of psychology at Yeshiva University.
If necessary, ask if they are suicidal. “It never does any harm to ask a friend if they’re thinking about suicide,” said Drescher. “Because if they’re thinking about it in private, they’re more likely to act on it, whereas if it’s out in the open, it’s usually less likely to be acted upon. A person who is suicidally depressed should definitely not be left alone.”
Help them structure their days. “Friends and family can help create a schedule and know that somebody is going to be in contact with that person during their free time,” says Drescher.
Help find pleasurable distractions and engaging activities. “Any sort of human contact, anything that helps them get out of themselves is a good thing,” said McDowell.