Ways to support a suffering loved one
What can you do for a friend or relative who has depression?
It’s hard to watch a loved one suffer. Whether it’s depression or any another debilitating illness that saps the life force of a person, one cannot help but feel powerless. That’s why it’s important to know the difference between what you can and cannot do.
What you cannot do: Major Depressive Disorder is a legitimate illness of the brain’s neurotransmitters. Just as you wouldn’t attempt to treat a friend’s diabetes, you cannot cure his or her depression. For many people, this can be hard to accept. Unfortunately, there is nothing you can do or say to lift the clouds. Tough love will not motivate your friend. If anything, it may make him or her feel worse. Although you may strongly encourage your loved one to seek treatment, you cannot make that person go, nor can you make him or her take medication.
That being said, there are some things you can do to help:
Encourage him or her to seek treatment from a licensed mental health professional. You can research therapists and collect contact information, but the person suffering should make the initial call to set up the consultation, as his or her investment in the process will affect the outcome of treatment.
Be a good friend and stay in touch. Though you may feel inclined to distance yourself, your withdrawal may actually accentuate his or her feelings of isolation common to depression.
Ask your friend if he or she is feeling suicidal. If he or she says “yes,” take your friend to an emergency room or call 911 on his or her behalf. If your friend indicates a definitive plan and easy access to weapons and/or potentially lethal drugs, you should definitely call. If he or she admits to having fleeting suicidal thoughts but does not plan to act on them, you can 1) encourage the person to share this with a therapist; and 2) give him or her the number for the suicide hotline in case the depression deepens (1-800-SUICIDE) while continuing to watch for changes in behavior.
Be compassionate. We’ve all had our dark times; some are worse than others.
After my last column, I received an email from Kitty Dukakis, the wife of former presidential candidate and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. She pointed out that in my last column, I did not mention the effectiveness of Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) in alleviating depression. While she is correct — ECT has been proven effective in treating chronic, pervasive depression that is unresponsive to therapy and medication — it is usually considered a treatment of last resort, and consequently was not necessarily appropriate to suggest to the questionably depressed gentleman who lost his job.
While being a good friend, continue to take care of yourself. Spending prolonged time, especially living with, a person who is depressed can be very emotionally draining. Take time to do activities you enjoy and remember what is within and not within your power to change.
– Kim Schneiderman, MSW, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and former journalist with a private
practice in New York City. This column is not intended to be used as a substitute for a private consultation with a mental health professional, nor is this therapist to be held liable for any actions taken as a result of this column. If you have any concerns related to the content of this column, please make an appointment with a licensed mental health professional. E-mail Kim your questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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