When a loved one has depression, it’s sometimes hard to know what we can do to help them. Alongside practical support, emotional support can be vital. The problem is, we might be worried or scared of saying the wrong thing or have no idea what to do. Perhaps we think we’re not qualified to offer emotional support. But we are – everyone is. We don’t need a qualification to listen.
It’s really obvious when someone isn’t listening to us. If someone says that they want to listen to us, but is then distracted, it can feel as though we’re a burden and they’re not as interested as they claim to be. There’s a difference between hearing and listening.
One thing that can happen when we live with depression, is that everything slows down. Our thoughts, actions, and speech can all go into ‘go slow’ mode. This can mean that it takes us longer to express our thoughts than might be ‘normal’ for us. Please be patient. Give us time. We will get there eventually.
Please don’t ignore other forms of communication. Behaviour is communication. Writing, drawing, and signing can all be forms of communication. Give us the time and space to communicate with you in a way that is most comfortable for us at the time.
Validate what we say to you. When living with depression, we’re often incredibly hard on ourselves. Our self-stigma can be worse than the stigma from those around us. We’ll tell ourselves that we need to “get over it”, “stop being so ridiculous” and that “nobody wants to listen to us”. Treacle can glue itself to our feet and clog up our thinking. Yet we’ll expect as much of ourselves as we always have done.
Let us know that you see how hard we’re trying and recognise that this isn’t easy. Acknowledge how difficult talking can be.
Sometimes we don’t want to talk. We don’t have anything to say, and even if we did, we wouldn’t know how to say it.
Sometimes we need someone to sit with us so that we’re not alone, but we don’t want to talk. We might like to stick some background noise on – film, TV, music, or radio. Do a jigsaw together. Play cards. Go on a drive. Watch wildlife. Or just sit and watch the world go by.
Take time to pause alongside us. Depression is lonely, and though there are times when we might want to be alone, often the gaping black hole of loneliness can be as all-consuming as depression itself. Sitting alongside us helps to shrink that gaping hole ever so slightly, giving us some respite.
We don’t have to be talking to offer emotional support.
3. Reach In To Offer Emotional Support
“Reach out” is a phrase we often hear when people discuss mental health. Phrases such as: “reach out”, “call a helpline”, “text a friend”, “tell someone” and ” you are not alone” are common.
The problem is, depression often destroys our confidence and undermines our faith in the world. It can erode our ability to process multiple-step processes (such as thinking of who to text, finding their number, thinking about what to write, writing it, and pressing send).
Using a helpline might be an option for some, but others might feel undeserving. Some of us struggle with phones and find them inaccessible, so calling anyone isn’t an option. We have to rely on email or text. Some people don’t like talking to strangers. There can also be a sense of shame. Or a cultural bias against reaching out for support.
Reaching out can be hard for a multitude of reasons, and each person who struggles to reach out will have their own circumstances and reasons.
Reaching in can look different depending on our relationship with the person we’re supporting. For some, it might look like regular texts to check in and remind us that you’re there. Some might appreciate ‘I saw this and thought of you’ messages. Others find a weekly or fortnightly video/phone call or visit helpful. It’s much easier to continue a conversation than to start one.
It’s worth noting that it can be hard to reply to things when we’re living with depression. But a lack of response doesn’t mean that messages have gone unread. We will often read and appreciate messages but not have the energy or the brainpower to reply. Please don’t give up on us.
Depression can come with a whole lot of admin. There might be forms to complete, appointments to go to, and assessments to attend. These forms, assessments and appointments could be with all sorts of people and services such as our GP, mental health team, specialist mental health support providers, occupational therapists, the Human Resources (HR) department at work, benefit applications, charities, social workers, student finance and universities.
It’s exhausting and can be incredibly stressful and overwhelming. Sharing our story and adequately explaining our struggles over and over again can be draining and traumatic. Having to repeat the same difficult stuff to stranger after stranger can drag our mood down. Some assessments might be alright, others might leave us feeling as though we have been disbelieved, invalidated, or unfairly judged.
Ask us if we’d like an advocate. This can remove some stress from the process of going through these applications. Having an advocate allows us to talk to one person in our own time and space. Once we’re in a meeting or assessment, an advocate can help us to explain our current situation. Additionally, if a meeting or assessment goes badly, then having someone to help us to work through that, and if needs be to challenge something, can be invaluable. If you’re comfortable doing so, then you could offer to advocate for us; if not then you could help us find a suitable alternative.
As well as helping us to share things, advocates can also help us to understand any information coming in. When depression is scrambling our mind, it can be hard to decipher letters or other communication, especially if they include jargon that we’re not used to.
Sometimes, emotional support can mean introducing us to advocacy. It’s something that we may not be aware of, but can help to remove an astonishing amount of stress, allowing us to focus on our recovery and health rather than being caught up in all the other ‘stuff’ that’s coming in.
5. Be Honest
When emotionally supporting someone with depression, honesty is vital.
When we think of honesty, our mind often goes to ‘not telling lies’. As important as this is, it’s not the only way to be honest. For example, if we tell the person we’re supporting that things will get better, when we don’t know that they categorically will, then are we being honest?
If we tell them that we’ll always be there for them, any time of day or night, but put our phone on silent when we’re asleep, then are we telling the truth? That’s not to say that we should have our phone on ‘loud’ all night – boundaries are important (as is sleep!) and it’s okay to have boundaries around the hours we’re available to chat. What’s not okay, is to be dishonest about our availability.
6. Remind Us Who We Are
One thing that often comes with depression, is a loss of identity. We go from being *insert name here*, to a ‘patient’, ‘service user’, ‘client’, ‘NHS number’ or a ‘depressed person’.
It can feel as though we go from being a wonderfully complicated human being to a collection of symptoms; a paper-person cut-out called ‘depression’.
As our joy and curiosity fade, so can our interest and enthusiasm for life. As our energy decreases, so can our hobbies and social contacts. If our illness worsens, we might take time off of work or take time out of education. We might reach a point where even if we had the energy to get out of bed, there’s no reason to do so.
We might forget the person we were and begin to feel hopeless, useless and personality-less.
Remind us who we are. Share a photo of a happy memory that pops up on your phone. Send us a text when you see or hear something that reminds you of us. Encourage us to re-engage with things we’ve previously enjoyed (in a low-pressure way!) and/or support us to try out something new. Reminisce. Tell us the things you love about us. Remind us of the time we feistily stood up for ourselves. Remind us of times when we’ve shown strength. Remember those times when we’ve supported you. Laugh about some of the silly things we’ve done. Talk to us as a loved one, not as an obligation or an item on your to-do list.
We’re still a human being with likes, dislikes, a personality, quirks, hopes, and dreams… they might just be a little hidden, faded, or battered right now.
7. Research Emotional Support In Our Area
Different areas offer different support systems, and it can be tricky to make sense of it all. Though, in general, NHS mental health systems are relatively similar throughout England, there can be different ways to access them. For example, some offer a self-referral option whereas others require a trip to the GP.
Aside from general mental health services, there might be other organisations offering support in our area. Sometimes this will be 1:1 support, some might offer support groups. There might be creative projects or groups that we could get involved with or short courses designed to teach us specific skills.
In England, our local Healthwatch will often provide a list of support services. We could also look at lists of national organisations and see whether any of them offer support in our area. Some of us might choose to pay for support and need to find out what’s available to us.
Trying to navigate support can be confusing. It often involves jargon. Between brain fog, limited concentration, and guilt, we have little chance of finding anything we feel able to access. More often than not, we’ll have to complete some sort of form and/or assessment to access a particular service. Although the reasons for this are clear, it can be exhausting to try and make sense of it all and to repeatedly complete ‘how have you felt in the last two weeks’ questionnaires.
Someone researching the support available to us can help to conserve our limited energy, and to navigate it all despite our brain-fog. Accessing help is scary and often we’ll feel undeserving of it. Many of us will talk ourselves out of applying for help before we’ve got so far as the first referral form. Sometimes we’ll look at the referral process, become overwhelmed, and give up.
Having someone by our side, researching the support in our area and helping us to apply for it can help to overcome barriers like these.
8. Have fun!
When we’re diagnosed with depression, life can become serious and sometimes we just need some fun.
Often, people (well-meaningly) ask us how we are, and we get very used to the ‘head tilt’ style of communication. Health appointments can overwhelm us, and everything can become very ‘depression centred’ and monotonous.
Sometimes, the best emotional support you can offer is fun. We need to shake it off. Whip out ‘Twister’ or ‘Bop-it’. Re-start our favourite sit-com and watch it alongside us. Instigate a nightly kitchen dance party. If you don’t live with us, invite us over for a night and have a sleepover (midnight feast essential). Go on a walk and make a daisy chain and/or run down a hill. Find some paint and do some no-pressure art or finger painting.
There are loads of things we can do to inject some fun and some laughter into life. The activities we choose will very much depend on what we like, and how ‘able’ we are at any given time.
Bonus: Don’t Give Up On Us
Please don’t give up on us. Even if we give up on ourselves, even if hopelessness is setting in, even if stuff seems to only ever get worse. Don’t give up. Keep checking in, keep letting us know you care, keep supporting us.
Thank you for being by our side.
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