TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of depression, mentions of suicide
Having a close family member or friend who experiences depression can be traumatic and distressing. Traumatic because the discovery that your loved one experiences depression is often sudden and brutal (at its most severe, occurring when your loved one commits suicide or is hospitalized), distressing because seeing someone you love is the grips of this illness is difficult. Often, people in this situation have very little idea about what, if anything, they can do for their loved one. As someone who has experienced severe depression and provides regular peer support to others with depression, I will outline some of the most important things I think someone in this situation can do.
Someone experiencing severe depression is not in a position to adequately explain what it means to be depressed. However, there is a wealth or resources both in print and online explaining depression from experiential and bio-psychological points of view. Both are useful ways to learn about depression. An experiential account of depression will explain what the day-to-day experience of living with depression is like. Depression is different for every person, but there are many common threads. The science behind depression can also be helpful in understanding what depression is like. This is especially helpful if you feel like you may have caused your loved one's depression.
In addition to these resources, there are organizations that offer education on mental illness to family members. In the US the group I'm most familiar with that does this is NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). NAMI was founded by family members of people experiencing mental illness, and serves as both an advocate for those affected by mental illness and as a place for peer support and education. Some NAMI chapters provide support group for the family members of people with mental illness, I highly recommend going to such a support group, whether it's affiliated with NAMI or not.
Listen and love.
This is central. Actively listen to what your loved one is saying they feel and think. Express your sympathy and your love, remind them that there is someone in the world who cares. People experiencing depression often believe that if they died, no one's life would be negatively affected. Let them know it's not true, but also let them know that you understand that they feel this way. It is not an easy balance to maintain, so don't worry if you don't get it perfect. Let them know that it is okay to feel this way. All emotions are acceptable, including negative ones. It's not wrong to be depressed, merely unhealthy, and your loved one is not responsible for their depression.
Ask what they need.
Don't ask what you can do, often a depressed person will either not know what you can do, or will not be comfortable asking you. Find out what your loved one requires, and do what you can. Often all that the person will need is for you to listen, but they may also need reminders to shop, bathe, eat, or sleep or other assistance. When I was depressed I had someone call me every morning to walk me through getting out of bed. Simple things like that can be more helpful than you would imagine.
Recognize your role.
You are not their therapist or psychiatrist. Even if you are a therapist or psychiatrist, you don't have a professional relationship with your loved one. Therefore, your role is not to provide therapy. It's not your job to analyze their depression, to guide them through exercises that may improve their mental health, or to tell them what course of treatment to pursue. You are there to listen and support.
Helping someone who experiences depression is stressful and draining. Realizing the depths of despair, self-hatred, or other negative emotions someone is experiencing is difficult. It is all too easy to be dragged down by someone else's depression. This is not healthy for you and it is not helpful for your loved one. If you cannot be there for someone, let them know, and also let them know that you will be there later, you just aren't up to it right now. Just as it's okay to be depressed, it's okay to not be there for someone. I have a friend who provides peer support to suicidal people. She often ends up suicidal herself because she either does not set boundaries or beats herself up when she does because she believes that if they commit suicide when she cannot healthily talk to them that it's her fault.
Forgive yourself and reject guilt.
This is one of NAMI's principles of support. Depression is a complex mental illness that rarely has one single cause. You did not cause your friend or family member's depression. You cannot fix their depression either. And that's okay, you don't need to. Do what you can, that is enough.
 Contact information about similar resources in other countries are included at the end of this piece. Readers who have contact information for countries not included can either email it to TBAT or include it in a comment. That information will be edited into the original article.
USEFUL RESOURCES FOR FAMILIES AND FRIENDS
National Alliance on Mental Illness [US]
Centre for Addiction and Mental Health [Canada]
Depression Alliance [UK]
Black Dog Institute [Australia]
Families for Depression Awareness [US]
National Alliance on Mental Illness (Ontario Branch) [Ontario, Canada]
A list of books/publications for the families and friends of the depressed and those with mental illnesses.
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