I have revised and expanded this post for a magazine article that I wrote recently. If you haven’t read it before I hope that it’s helpful to you.
The person with depression usually can’t see a way forward. They may fervently believe that nobody can help them, and life is pointless. That doesn’t mean that they’re right, and there are plenty of things that you can do to help.
The type and amount of care that you can give will depend on your relationship with the person, but here are some ideas.
1. Understand the illness.
Learn all that you can about depression. The better you grasp the illness, the more effective you will be in giving your care and understanding. It will help you to understand why the person behaves the way they do, and better equip you to respond appropriately.
2. Seek Appropriate Treatment
This is such a far-reaching, wide-ranging topic that I would be foolish to give advice. Suffice to say that it will be helpful for you to explore the treatment options available in your area and suggest to the person that they need professional help. It might be helpful for them if you go along to the first or subsequent appointments. Often a person actually feels relieved to hear a diagnosis and know that they are sick and that they can be helped. This was really true for me.
If he or she won’t admit they need help then explain why you are concerned and perhaps provide them with some helpful written information to chew over.
3. Provide Emotional Support
Your partner or friend needs patience, care and understanding. They have a real illness, and just like someone with cancer they can’t just “snap out of it”. If they could, they would. Saying things that show ignorance about the illness is counterproductive and will reinforce their negative thinking.
The best way to communicate is to empathise, listen more than talk, and ask questions like “How can I support you?” or “How can I help?”
4. Keep the Illness Separate
The illness and the person suffering the illness are not the same thing, so keep them separate. When they express pessimism, anger, frustration, or sadness, it is the illness talking not the person. If you separate the two you will find it easier to cope emotionally. It will help you to be a more effective caregiver.
5. Listen Non-Judgmentally
Don’t try to talk a depressed person out of their feelings, no matter how irrational they sound. This is likely to compound the problem. It is better to remain neutral and say something like “You are obviously really suffering with this. What can I do to help you feel better?” Keep your suggestions, solutions and advice for another time. My wife has also found that posing suggestions as a question helps me to have some ownership of the solutions. It stops me feeling nagged too!
6. Make a Plan
Help the person to make a plan for coping with depression. Identify things that trigger or worsen the depression and things that make it better. Think through and list the ideas formally on paper. Help them to put this plan into action. Some positive, helpful things to include are getting to bed early, having adequate sleep, exercising regularly, drinking plenty of water and eating healthy foods. The plan will be an evolving document as things change, so be prepared to re-visit it on a regular basis. I often need my wife to remind me what works for my health as sometimes I go off track. This is a key role that the caregiver can play.
7. Look after yourself
As a caregiver you are likely to be under stress. You need to care for yourself by taking time out and recharging your batteries. Find other friends or relatives who you can talk to and rely on at a pinch. Sometimes you will need a sounding-board to keep things in perspective. Make sure you continue to live your own life as well, and spend time doing things you enjoy. My wife loves her part-time job for many reasons, but high on the list is escape. Although she is working, it’s a great mental break for her when home life is dominated by my illness.
There are services that provide education and support for caregivers. Through information sessions and support groups, you can talk to people who are in a similar position.
8. Organize their medicines
If your partner or friend is taking medicine for depression then it is crucial for them to follow their prescription. Too many people go on and off their anti-depressants depending on how they feel. This all but eliminates their effectiveness.
I take medicine at night without any problems, but if it wasn’t for my wife handing the pills to me I would never take them in the mornings. She also fills my scripts and tells me when to go to the doctor for more. It’s not laziness; it’s just the nature of depression. More than once I have spent hours in bed staring at my pills, but not had the mental energy to actually take them. If your partner or friend is not complying with their prescription, try to find out how you can help.
9. Support network.
Introduce the idea of joining a support network for depression. This will give them an outlet for discussing their problems and receiving input, and help them to discover that there are other (normal) people experiencing similar problems. There are depression support groups everywhere. Make sure that you find one that is positive and focused on recovery. Inward looking, pessimistic groups can be unhelpful.
10. Get out and About
One of the most therapeutic things that a depressed person can do is step out the front door. Natural light is very beneficial, especially early in the day. Exercise also has proven benefits. Something as simple as taking a walk or gardening should lift the person’s mood. Anything low-key that involves going out can also help; seeing a movie, meeting friends, or going out to eat, just to name a few ideas. The most effective way for me to get up and out the door is to take the kids to school. There is a set time to go, which gives me routine, and the kids are great company.
11. Help with daily tasks
When your body is heavy and your mind is dark, there is nothing harder than the burdens of everyday life. Something that seems minor to you may be an insurmountable task to your friend or partner. Ease their burden by helping with the daily load – running errands, doing the shopping, cooking, taking the kids out for a couple of hours. You may be surprised to find that helping with a very simple chore could relieve them of a lot of stress.
We had an old mattress that needed to go to the tip. My wife asked me to take it there for months, and over time it became a source of tension. But my thinking wasn’t rational and the thought of going to the tip overwhelmed me. When she understood what was really going on she asked a friend to take it. That was a huge relief to both of us.
12. Spend normal time together
Just spending time with the person lets them know that you care and want to understand their problems. Enjoy the reasons for being their companion in the first place. It’s important that they live as normal a life as possible. Help them to do this by carrying on your relationship with them in a normal fashion. Don’t let everything get dark and serious. Find some positive things and try to enjoy them together.
The points above are general by necessity. They don’t fit all circumstances, but I hope that you find at least a few helpful ideas.