Depression is one of the most common psychological problems people face in their life, with 2017 surveys showing that 7.1% of all US adults report at least one major depressive episode (Major Depression, 2019). This is an especially pertinent issue in the ongoing pandemic, as global lockdowns have forced many into social isolation, which can cause or compound symptoms of depression (Grey et al., 2020; Werner-Seidler et al., 2017). If you know someone who is struggling with depression, one of the best things you can do for them as a friend, partner, or family member is provide social support (Werner-Seidler et al., 2017; Roohafza et al., 2014). Social support can come in many forms, from “being there” for someone through their emotional difficulties to more practical support like helping a friend make dinner or giving them advice.
Providing support to a friend or family member who is struggling with depression will not cure them, but it can provide numerous benefits (Griffiths et al., 2011); in fact, having three or more friends or family members to confide in or to rely on is associated with decreased risk of depression (Werner-Seidler et al., 2017). It is therefore incredibly important to know how to provide support to those around us who may be struggling with depression, especially what to do and what not to do when having difficult conversations with a friend or family member.
Providing social support is one of the key lessons of LIFE Intelligence. LIFE Intelligence is a relationship-building app available on iOS and Android that is designed to help you achieve optimal functioning in all areas of your life, including self, relationships, and your career. Mission 6 of LIFE’s 9-Mission program specifically deals with social and holistic health, and you can learn more about supporting others by downloading the app and working through Mission 6.5: Providing Social Support.
Begin the conversation by checking in on your loved one’s mental health and well-being (Elmer, 2019). Avoid simply asking “how are you doing?” or “are you okay?” as these may elicit automatic responses such as “I’m fine.” Instead, ask more specific questions such as “I noticed you’ve seemed a little under the weather lately. Are you feeling alright?” Do not be afraid to ask these pointed questions, as being assertive can help to guide the conversation (Schimelpfening, 2020).
Nonetheless, it is important to give them space. If they are not ready or do not want to talk, do not talk (Elmer, 2019). Tell them you are available to talk if or when they are ready.
Of course, encourage your friend or family member to seek professional help if they are significantly distressed or if you have serious concerns. If they are already in therapy or in a mental health program, ask them how their treatment is going; this may help to keep them consistent with their treatment plan (Elmer, 2019).
Those struggling with depression often have motivational difficulties, and doing work, chores, or even getting out of bed can be exhausting (Elmer, 2019). If you would like to help, focus on specific things you can do that day. For example, you could offer to bring over some dinner or do some shopping for them, or even just give them a text or call to wake them up and make sure they get to work on time. Offering help in this way may be more effective than simply saying “let me know if I can help,” as it provides specific ways in which you can help them in the present moment (Schimelpfening, 2020).
Depression can make an individual feel incredibly alone. It is therefore important to express that you will be there for your loved one and that they are important to you (Elmer, 2019).
If you have experience with clinically-significant depression, you may choose to share this with your friend or family member, although it is important to keep the focus on them. Talking about yourself can strengthen your relationship and help your loved one to cope with their depression, as long as your comments are not self-centered or self-preoccupied (Truong et al., 2019). Always keep what you say relevant to the person and the conversation, and do not give advice unless it is asked for (Elmer, 2019; Truong et al., 2019).
If you have no experience or thorough knowledge of depression, it is fine to admit that you do not fully understand. However, you should still tell your loved one that they are not alone and that you care for them and will be there for them (Elmer, 2019; Schimelpfening, 2020). Furthermore, acknowledge the hardships they are facing. Saying things like “That sounds really difficult; I’m sorry” to someone struggling with depression can show that you are listening and make them feel valid in their struggles (Elmer, 2019).
For those affected by depression, one of the greatest disadvantages in talking to friends and family about it is facing stigma (Griffiths et al., 2011). Many individuals with depression may fear that their loved ones will not understand or appropriately react to their depression, and unfortunately this is sometimes the case.
It is important to understand that depression is a medical condition, often caused by a neurochemical imbalance (Singh & Gotlib, 2014). Any comments that belittle, ignore, or undermine one’s difficulty with depression will always be negative (Elmer, 2019). These might include the following:
The pain and hardships of depression are real, yet these comments—even if well-intentioned—make it appear as if it is “just a bad day” or not really worth taking seriously. This could not be further from the truth. You should always listen attentively and take the words of your loved one seriously, being careful not to minimize their struggles or deny the gravity of their feelings. By better understanding the adversity they face, you will be in a better position to provide social support to your friend or family member.
Especially during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential to provide social support to those around us who may be suffering from depression. Even just a few close friends or family members can help to significantly relieve the burden of someone who is suffering (Werner-Seidler et al., 2017). These guidelines will help you to structure a conversation about depression with a loved one, but remember that having conversations and providing support is no replacement for medical or therapeutic treatment. Encourage your friend or family member to see a clinician, as depression is a condition that can often be successfully treated with medical attention (Schimelpfening, 2020). Nonetheless, your support plays an invaluable role in your loved one’s mental health, and with or without clinical intervention, being supportive will be one of the best things you can do for your friend or family member.
If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with a trained counselor. If it is an emergency, call 911.
LIFE Intelligence is one app for every aspect of your LIFE. Our 9-topic self-development journey provides science-backed content, exercises, and reflections to help you better understand and manage yourself and others. Our mood tracker and emotional management toolkit helps you deal with difficult situations on the fly. These combined help you comprehensively manage stress and anxiety, improve work productivity and career fulfillment, and build lasting relationships.
Elmer, J. (2019). Not sure what to say to someone with depression? here are 7 ways to show support. Healthline.com. https://www.healthline.com/health/what-to-say-to-someone-with-depression
Grey, I., Arora, T., Thomas, J., Saneh, A., Tohme, P., & Abi-Habib, R. (2020). The role of perceived social support on depression and sleep during the COVID-19 pandemic. Psychiatry Research, 293, 113452. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0165178120331139?casa_token=h2x8yIlVVakAAAAA:hATcKywufMqyL5rixss5R38vZKSM3-grNp0euKFMkOZV3-xKrIixoRnJh_0YPUO2aqCTKbverA
Griffiths, K. M., Crisp, D. A., Barney, L., & Reid, R. (2011). Seeking help for depression from family and friends: A qualitative analysis of perceived advantages and disadvantages. BMC Psychiatry, 11(1), 196. https://bmcpsychiatry.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-244X-11-196
Major depression. (2019). National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/major-depression
Roohafza, H. R., Afshar, H., Keshteli, A. H., Mohammadi, N., Feizi, A., Taslimi, M., & Adibi, P. (2014). What's the role of perceived social support and coping styles in depression and anxiety? Journal of Research in Medical Sciences, 19(10), 944-949. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4274570/?report=classic
Schimelpfening, N. (2020). What to say when someone is depressed. Verywellmind.com. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-to-say-when-someone-is-depressed-1067474
Singh, M. K., & Gotlib, I. H. (2014). The neuroscience of depression: Implications for assessment and intervention. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 62, 60-73. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4253641/
Truong, C., Gallo, J., Roter, D., & Joo, J. (2019). The role of self-disclosure by peer mentors: Using personal narratives in depression care. Patient Education and Counseling, 102(7), 1273-1279. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/30791990/
Werner-Seidler, A., Afzali, M., Chapman, C., Sunderland, M., & Slade, T. (2017). The relationship between social support networks and depression in the 2007 national survey of mental health and well-being. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 52(12), 1463-1473. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/28889230/