Depression can take many forms. No two situations are the same, and one person’s experience with depression may vary greatly from another’s.
One thing is clear: unfortunately, chances are that at some stage, someone you know will be affected by depression. One in eight Canadians1 will experience clinical depression at some point in their life. Knowing how to help support someone experiencing depression may be helpful.
8 ways to help support someone with depression
It can be difficult to watch a loved one go through depression. Stigma often surrounds mental illness, and sometimes you may be unsure of what to do. “A common misconception about depression is that it will go away on its own,” says Dr. Lephuong Ong, a registered psychologist at TELUS Health Care Centres mental health clinic in Vancouver. “In reality, clinical or major depression affects the mind, body and mood and can seriously disrupt someone’s ability to function in many aspects of their life.”
If you know someone experiencing depression, here are things you can do that may be helpful:
1. Show compassion
Showing your friend or family member that you truly care about them is the first step. This may take the form of starting a conversation. While sometimes it may be difficult to know what to say, know that oftentimes the most valuable thing for someone experiencing depression may be a listening ear.
“I’ve often heard clients tell me that they wished their friends and family would simply listen and empathize, without trying to problem solve or offer unsolicited advice,” says Dr. Ong. “Being present to listen, without judgment and without offering ‘quick fixes’ is crucial.”
You can start the conversation by asking questions like:
- “Do you want to talk about it?”
- “That sounds really hard. How are you coping?”
- “What can I do to help you today?”
- "How best can I support you?"
- "I care about you, no matter what."
“When experiencing depression, people may feel very alone and may believe that no one understands them,” Dr. Ong says. By opening the door for conversation, you can show your loved one that you genuinely care about how they are doing and are there to listen.
2. Help them find support
If someone is experiencing depression it can be difficult to know where to begin when it comes to seeking help - but getting help sooner rather than later is important.
“When depression goes untreated, it may impact one’s physical health too,” Dr. Ong says. “The longer it is left untreated, the worse the impact may become.” According to the World Health Organization, depression is a leading cause of disability across the globe.2
If your friend or family member is willing to pursue therapy and/or medication options, you can help them by helping them find out what support is available. Whether researching therapy options, helping them think through what they would like to discuss in their first session, or driving your loved one to an appointment, there are things you can do that can make it easier for your loved one to find and receive the help they need.
3. Make plans to socialize – but be flexible
One of the signs commonly associated with depression is withdrawing from social activities. Your loved one may not feel like initiating plans to get together. But prolonged isolation may in fact make depression symptoms worse.
Make loose plans to get together, but understand that in doing so, there is a chance they may not be up for socializing when the time comes. Remind them that you are flexible, and that you understand they may not want to meet up if they are in a particularly rough patch, but that you will be happy to see them when they feel ready.
4. Do your own research
Understanding the differences between depression and feelings of sadness is important when trying to support someone. Avoid asking them to explain it all to you – as well intentioned as your questions may be, this may be exhausting for someone who is living through depression themselves.
“Try to learn about depression before you start a conversation,” Ong recommends. “Look into the signs and symptoms, how it can affect day to day functioning, and possible treatments. The more familiar you are with depression, the more you may be able to help offer support.
Doing your own research is important. Books like This Is Depression by psychiatrist and educator Diane McIntosh can be a helpful place to start.
5. Offer to help with specific day-to-day tasks
When someone is experiencing depression, tasks like going grocery shopping or doing laundry can seem daunting.
Letting someone know you’re there to help is a great first step. But difficulty making decisions can sometimes be associated with depression. Rather than saying something more general like “Let me know if you need anything,” you may offer to help with a specific task.
Going to the grocery store? Give your friend or family member a call and see if they need anything, or if they’d like to tag along. Or offer to come over and help with a household chore, like tidying a particular room or tending to the garden. Doing this together may be more manageable for your loved one than them trying to do so on their own.
6. Understand that it’s not on you to ‘fix’ them
When a person you care about is experiencing depression, it’s natural to want to help them and to hope they will feel better soon. But depression is a serious medical condition that requires professional treatment. While you can help by offering to listen and support someone, remember that “fixing” the situation is not on you.
Just as you would not expect yourself to be able to ‘fix’ the situation if your loved one had cancer or diabetes, so too should you not expect that you will be able to single-handedly cure them of depression. While this may sound discouraging, remember that being there for them, even if you can’t eradicate the problem, is still incredibly valuable. Being there for someone, and checking in on them, may be far more valuable and make far more of a positive difference for them than it may seem.
7. Don't shy away from talking about suicide
You may think you should avoid discussing suicide for fear that talking about it may increase the odds of your loved one thinking about it. But acknowledging it and broaching the subject may actually help them open up in a way they may not have felt they could before.
“Research has actually shown that acknowledging and asking questions about suicide may actually reduce distress and suicidal thoughts,” says Dr. Ong. “Even though suicide may be incredibly difficult to talk about, it’s important not to shy away from bringing it up if you are concerned.”
It may be helpful to start the conversation by letting your loved one know that you care about them and that they aren’t alone. Saying something like “I can’t imagine how painful this is for you, but I would like to try to understand,” may show that while you don’t know exactly how they feel, you can empathize, and are there for them. Similar to ways in which you may talk about depression, be non-judgmental and accepting with your words and behaviour. Asking specific questions, including whether they have thought about suicide or attempted it, may seem daunting but may actually be helpful in creating an emotional bond and connection with someone who may be feeling very isolated.
It’s important to ensure that your loved one has the right sources of emotional support. Helping them find a therapist, if they don’t have one already, may be valuable. If they do have one, you may ask if they have spoken with them recently to talk about their feelings. Don’t promise them that you will keep their feelings a secret. Instead, offer to help them as best you can, with their long-term health and safety as the priority.
If you or a loved one needs urgent or emergency care:
- Crisis text line: Text ‘HOME’ to 741741
- Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1‑833‑456‑4566
- Emergencies: 911
8. Remember to take care of yourself
Practicing self-care is something that is easy to neglect when you are taking care of someone else. But it may in fact make you a better caregiver. If you aren’t properly taking care of yourself, you may not be able to properly take care of someone else.
Remember that it is okay (and may in fact be healthy) to have boundaries. Letting your loved one know you can talk at certain times of the day, but not others, is perfectly acceptable. You can also tap into your own support network. Maybe there are other relatives or mutual friends that can check in on your loved one when you aren’t available or need some downtime.
Mental health services are available from TELUS Health
Dr. Lephuong Ong is one of many dedicated clinicians working on the TELUS Health team for the TELUS Health Care Centres, where in-person appointments with psychologists and other mental health professionals are available in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and Quebec.
Additionally TELUS Health Virtual Care, our virtual care service offered by employers for employees, offers health and wellbeing support and may be available to you through your employer benefits plan.
Written in consultation with Dr. Lephuong Ong, registered psychologist.
Depression. CMHA British Columbia. (2013). Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://cmha.bc.ca/documents/depression-2/
WHO (2021). Depression. Accessed September 22, 2022 from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/depression