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For anyone who has a loved one suffering from depression, you know how distressing it can be. Our loved ones are suffering from a serious and painful disease, and it can be difficult to witness the effects.
What can we do to help?
Very often it is family members or close friends who first suspect their loved one is depressed. Knowing the symptoms – unusual irritability or moodiness, disinterest in everyday activities, having a bleak or negative view of their current situation, sleeping too little or too much, significant changes in eating habits, indecisiveness or disorganization, feelings of lethargy or unusual aches and pains, or abusing alcohol or drugs – can give the family member an opening to start a conversation about the possibility.
Opening the conversation might be difficult. Casual mentions of behavioral changes you have witnessed, or expressing your friendly concern because they have seemed “down” recently, or simply asking if there is anything going on that is making them feel bad, might be the opening that works.
Never accuse, and don’t become argumentative, even if the patient does.
Once the conversation begins, it is important to be a sympathetic or empathetic listener. Don’t interject or try to counter what is being said. Don’t tell them they are wrong or that they need to “snap out of it.” Don’t challenge them. Don’t tell them you have been through it, unless you have.
A good listener can absorb what is being said in a non-judgmental fashion and encourage more discussion.
Understanding that depression is a mental illness, not a personal weakness, is key to approaching a friend or family member. Family or friends are often the first line of defense against depression, giving the sufferer “permission” to consider it and seek treatment.
Family and friends can also provide direct assistance. Perhaps they can do the legwork to find a therapist, or make appointments with a physician. They can drive their loved one to their appointments, and discuss afterwards what the recommendations were.
Sometimes the sufferer doesn’t want to hear what you have to say. They may become angry, telling you you’re butting in where you’re not welcome, or that you don’t know what you’re talking about. Be patient, and don’t take any attacks personally.
Sometimes it takes a while for a depressed person to realize that there is help available, and that you are on their side.
Keep an eye on your friend to make certain symptoms are not getting worse. If your friend appears to be putting his or her affairs in order, or is expressing hopelessness and a preoccupation with death, or even if you are feeling instinctively that your friend might be considering suicide, don’t hesitate to confront them. One of the best things you can do to prevent suicide is to talk openly about it. Don’t be afraid you are putting it in their head.
If you suspect your friend is at imminent risk of suicide, don’t leave them alone. Call 911.
Even after treatment has been completed, be alert to the possibility of relapse.
A friend can be the best thing that happens to someone with depression. Be that friend.
Photo image courtesy NIH
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