When you see someone you love in pain, you might feel a lot of things. You’re likely to start with sympathy and concern but as you try (and fail) to help, it might turn to frustration. Or resentment, if you’re having to pick up the slack.
Here are some thoughts on how to support your loved one, and take care of yourself, too.
1) Educate yourself.
If you haven’t experienced depression yourself, it might be hard to relate. You might think (or say) things along the lines of, “Stop wallowing. Snap out of it.”
Learning what depression is and how it manifests for different people is the best place to start.
2) Ask questions, and be kind if your loved one isn’t up for answering.
It’s best to stick with open-ended questions: What are you feeling right now? Is there anything I can do to help? Are there things that have helped in the past when you feel like this?
Sometimes the depression is such that the person really doesn’t want to engage. It’s important to respect that, while gently nudging in the direction of seeking help.
If they already have a therapist or psychiatrist, do all you can to make sure they make it to their appointment. Or if they had mental health services in the past and have dropped off, you might want to schedule an appointment.
3) Keep your expectations and demands low.
Gentle encouragement (“let’s take a walk around the block”) is much better than insistence. You don’t want to apply your standards for what should be happening because you don’t know what it feels like to be in the other person’s skin. You can’t really know what they’re capable of while depressed.
State your love and commitment clearly. This is important because often a depressed person feels worthless and ashamed. He or she may worry that you won’t want to put up with this much longer. Reassurance that you’re going to be there no matter what is very healing.
Have reasonable expectations for yourself, too. Depression is an illness. If your loved one is depressed, that’s not your fault, and it’s not something that’s within your control. You can’t “make” anyone feel better. If you place too much pressure on yourself, you can start to feel depressed, too, and that’s no good for anyone.
4) Monitor your own feelings, and attend to your own self-care.
If you set your feelings aside completely in order to nurture the other person, it can backfire. You can amass resentments, or you can become irritable or angry. You might find yourself suddenly attacking the other person, or you might find other areas of your life suffer.
Make sure you’re doing what you need for yourself. Don’t get lost in the shuffle. You need to eat properly, exercise, take breaks from the situation, and engage in pleasurable, de-stressing activities.
Depression can be a marathon, not a sprint. A major depressive episode lasts at least two weeks but it could be longer, and it is a recurrent illness. But it is also a treatable one.