Occasionally during events or in conversation, I’m asked how to help someone with depression. I’ve been on both sides of this dynamic throughout my life — as the “supporter” and “supported” — and wish to share what I understand are effective and compassionate approaches.
Helping a loved one through an emotional crisis is daunting. Equally, asking for support can feel impossible when in the eye of the storm. With that in mind, this guide is for everyone affected. Perhaps someone you know is struggling and you want to educate yourself. Perhaps you’re struggling and you’d like a resource to give to a loved one.
Either way, I’m hopeful the following framework increases understanding, sharpens communication, and offers clarity around this complex interpersonal relationship. I write from a place of deep appreciation for my support system. This article is dedicated to the words of encouragement, empathy, compassion and humour that has supported, and continues to support, my journey.
Note: these tips equally apply to anxiety. For ease, I’ll refer to “depression” for both.
People Can Only Be Helped When They Are Ready
Let’s get this out of the way. As I’ve progressed on my journey of growth, healing and subsequent teaching, I’ve had to manage my urge to try and fix people. Fuelled by the desire to help, at times I’ve felt frustrated at not being able to “heal” everyone.
Ultimately, the only person to recover from depression, and eventually thrive, is the person themselves. People have to be ready. “Readiness” includes talking openly, looking for solutions instead of focusing on problems, avoiding self-sabotaging habits such as excessive alcohol consumption, drugs, binge-eating, inactivity, or even indulging in self-pity.
It’s difficult to watch a loved one suffer, yet accepting this truth saves futile attempts trying to “fix” someone by viewing their problems as your own. It appears counterintuitive, but acceptance makes you better placed to help. The best any helper can do is compassionately guide, not take full responsibility for someone else’s wellbeing.
Avoid The Temptation Of Unsolicited Advice
The desire to fix someone often manifests as unsolicited advice. To someone experiencing depression, unsolicited advice can be a significant setback deepening a sense of isolation and increasing the feeling of being misunderstood. Especially if it’s taken courage for the person to open up about how they’re feeling.
There are many paradoxes with depression that don’t make sense on the surface. From the outside it may seem self-sabotaging behaviours and thinking processes are a choice, but causes are often complex. People don’t choose depression. Solutions may remain hidden to the person themselves, or distorted thoughts may seem logical.
Unsolicited advice implies solutions are simple, or there’s a “right way” which, if only the person tried, they’d be better. Receiving such advice reinforces beliefs of being “incapable” or “broken,” and can push people further into themselves. When feeling the urge to pass on advice, ask yourself: am I masking judgement (i.e. minimising the experience) or non-acceptance of a person’s experience?
Offering Advice When Asked
Unsolicited advice is… unsolicited. It’s offered when someone hasn’t asked for it. In instances where someone asks for help, advice can be powerful. As an expert in the mental health field, it’s difficult to witness people close to me suffer without offering guidance. However, I only pass guidance to those who ask.
When I do, it’s good practice to then let go of any expectations the advice will be acted upon, or even beneficial. I’ve been asked for advice and, glad to help, I’ve provided a thorough overview of possible solutions, causes, and guidance… only for the person to avoid following up any of those steps.
I used to find this frustrating. Now I understand the person is at the contemplation stage of change, and the next step may be taken weeks, months, or years in the future. In their own time, remember? Any frustration is an indication of conditional sharing or a possible “saviour complex” (which I’ll discuss later).
The way advice is framed makes a difference, too. Leave the option out there for your loved one to pursue by their own accord (“here’s something which might help” not “this is the answer”). People learn best and heal quicker when they feel empowered. No-one is broken. Everyone has the wisdom to heal within themselves, even if they’re disconnected from it.
There is one exception: intervention. The severity of depression may require immediate support if the person struggling is a danger to themselves and need a loved one to step up. There is a time and a place for an intervention made with gentleness, compassion and love. But it’s not the default stance.
Communication: Toxic Positivity And Validation And Hope
Chronic depression is far from “sadness” and some general life advice doesn’t apply to depression. Be aware of common phrases that are particularly damaging. To help, psychologist Whitney Hawkins Goodman created a chart to highlight the difference between “toxic positivity” and a skillful way of communicating — the validation and hope technique.
This technique gives room for the way the person is feeling, without mistaking their current perspective or mood as truth or who they are. It doesn’t minimise the experience but is still supportive and directive. Examples in the chart below:
The Three Factors Of Nourishing Support
As a helper, I have good news for you — there’s no need to say the right thing! Three factors more important are empathy, acceptance, and experiencing sharing. Empathy validates the person’s experience and helps them feel valued. Acceptance reassures the person it’s okay to feel how they feel, which is significant as a common symptom of depression is shame. Experience sharing is nuanced; much depends on whether you’ve experienced depression first-hand.
If you have, sharing tips that worked for you (remember: “it might work for you”) or insight into your own processes (particularly around “shadow elements” or experiences people tend to hide) can be immensely uplifting for the person you’re helping. Common humanity is a powerful reminder we’re never alone.
That’s not to say that anyone without direct experience can’t shine light through personal experiences. Again, it’s important to avoid sharing with the belief that your solution is the definitive answer. But depression is the extreme end of the spectrum of human experience, and all of us face hardship in life. Vulnerability is a bridge-builder. And vulnerability is contagious.
Create An Environment For Sharing
Depression evokes emotions such as guilt, shame, and convinces people their struggle is a burden to others. The above Three Factors create an environment where the person feels comfortable sharing — when they’re ready. Speaking from experience, a nourishing, “safe” environment is highly transformative through osmosis alone. It’s an energetic green light to share.
As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The greatest gift we can give to others is our true presence.” Simply “being” with attentiveness and care is enough. Even now I struggle to be fully open when in the midst of “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Many times with family or friends, nothing is said directly, but a familiar, accepting presence is the green light to embrace vulnerability and share what’s on my mind
Depression Is Illogical
When helping someone with depression, the rational mind is a tool to be used skillfully. It’s not the definitive answer. From a balanced, objective place, you’re able to provide a stable sounding board to restructure your loved one’s thoughts and beliefs in a healthier, more constructive way. But there are shortcomings to rationality: depression often can’t be understood rationally. It is inherently illogical.
What appears irrational to a “healthy” mind will feel logical to someone with depression. So as a helper, what do you do? I balance perspective shifting with the desire to understand. This avoids using rationality as an external marker of the “right” way to see things, but reframes while validating the person’s inherent, illogical logic.
There’s always some form of logic below the surface of depression. Support in this situation is accepting the illogical nature of depression, and doing your best to understand the person’s unique perspective and experience. Ask: “what can I do?” Seeking to understand alone is a powerful support technique.
If your loved one isn’t sharing openly, channell the desire to understand into research: blog posts, books, films… Anywhere you can find information that will enable you to create a clearer picture of what the person is going through, and ways you can assist. I can’t express how meaningful it is when it’s apparent a loved one has taken time to understand.
I highlight rationality as it’s a potential barrier to effective support. Jumping in with rational perspectives may feel like a supportive process, but it can appear dismissive of the person’s inner-experience. The perspective shifter first seeks to understand, then provides a view that isn’t distorted through difficult and often intense emotions — once asked, of course.
A Support System Is More Than One Person
A support system offers many perspectives. Some of my supporters champion me, give me a boost, offer encouragement. Others offer reasoned, calm reframing when I’m viewing things from an unbalanced place. Others are direct and highlight where I’m contributing to my own suffering, by falling into self-pity or being too hard on myself.
In the past I’ve had therapy and I work regularly with a coach and mentor. And, fortunately, I’m able to offer a lot of self-support. This the infrastructure for my support system. The definition of system is “a set of things working together as parts of a mechanism or an interconnecting network; a complex whole.”
As a helper or someone experiencing depression, remember: one person can’t provide all the support someone needs. It’s unhealthy for both parties and can lead to codependency. In the long-run, there’s a risk of tension, resentment, a lack of boundaries, sky-high expectations, and burnout for the helper.
Romantic relationships are the biggest culprit. Men are prone to placing all of their emotional needs onto a romantic partner, due to gender stereotypes around expressing feelings. However, this “funnelling” of support isn’t exclusively gender specific or confined to one type of relationship.
This is where we welcome tough-love territory: you may need to set boundaries and express limitations if this pattern is forms. It’s not easy, but in the long run it’s the most beneficial way to truly help someone with depression. Expressing boundaries (with compassion) creates healthy expectations of the amount of support you can provide without neglecting yourself.
The Shadow Of Being A Helper
Codepency leads us to the shadow side of support. A common issue in relationships (again more likely in romance) is the saviour complex. According to Psychology Today, the saviour complex is:
“A psychological construct which makes a person feel the need to save other people. This person has a strong tendency to seek people who desperately need help and to assist them, often sacrificing their own needs for these people.”
Interpersonal relationships function around dynamics. Most of us are unconsciously drawn to certain dynamics, especially with codependent patterns of behaviour. Having compassion for others is a beautiful trait to have — but watch out for the desire to help mutating into obligation, duty, or a way to boost your self-esteem or avoid your own troubles.
The saviour complex hinders a person’s recovery. They helper, finding self-worth through helping, oxygenises a sense of victimhood and disempowerment in the person struggling. Once this bond has formed, it’s difficult to break; the shadow work is having the self-awareness to detect when supporting from this place, and the tough-love required to make changes.
An effective helper is balanced, healthy, and knows how to look after themselves. Fill your cup first. Make sure you give space to your emotions, and set boundaries if necessary. If a family member, romantic partner, or someone in close physical proximity is in the dark depths of depression, the toll on the helper can be profound in its own right. Helpers need support systems, too.
Spotting Perfectionism And High Expectations
It’s natural to question if you’re doing enough. Be kind to yourself. Reading this article with the desire to learn already makes you someone your loved one is lucky to have. Don’t get discouraged if you feel you’re not helping. I can virtually guarantee that at some point, something will be said or done that causes upset. After all, there’s no perfect way to help. So forgive yourself for any “mistakes” — being a helper is a learning process.
And don’t underestimate small gestures. In the midst of depression it’s difficult to express gratitude, but support doesn’t go unnoticed even when gratitude isn’t expressed. At some of my lowest points, I’ve been moved to tears by random acts of kindness. They’re not earth-shattering demonstrations but subtle and warm and lovely and they open the heart and allow just a little light into the darkness. A little light is all it takes, sometimes.
The impact of your support may not be immediately clear. But it could be life-saving.