How to Support a Loved One With Depression: 7 Do’s and Don’ts

From someone who’s figuring this out as she goes along

Kathryn Wells
Sep 3, 2020 · 10 min read
Photo by Matthew Henry from Burst

It was a very surreal moment. After having no contact for 18 months there I was, sat in my former home, holding my ex-partners hand while he cried.

Life sure can throw us some curveballs.

While it was weird to find myself there with him, I hadn’t hesitated. When he called to say he was struggling and needed someone to be with him, I went.

He was having thoughts of taking his own life. He had a plan and the night before he’d almost gone through with it. I don’t mess around with that sort of thing. Nobody deserves to sit alone in their suffering.

A few days later I sat beside him as he told his mum and his doctor what was going on. We’ve been muddling through it all together ever since.

It’s not easy but then genuine love isn’t about doing what’s easy. It’s about being there for one another when we’re at our most vulnerable. When we feel broken and alone.

I’ve had some dark times in my life. My sister died. Important dreams have died. I left my ex, not because I didn’t love him but because he wasn’t ready to seek help.

But through all of that, through all the dark seasons and the despair, never once have I thought about taking my own life.

So for those of you reading this who have been in that place, know that not once will I say that I know what it feels like.

And while I’ve been through periods of feeling depressed, I do not know what it feels like to have depression. Those are two different things and I want you to know that I know that.

I am not an expert on depression or suicidal feelings. What follows comes solely from my own observations, thoughts and feelings as I learn to navigate my way through this.

There will be mistakes in the words that follow, of that I am sure, so I encourage you to correct me where I get it wrong.

I hope that in sharing my own experience it might help provide those of you supporting a loved one with depression that little bit easier.

1.) DO encourage your loved one to share their feelings

Sometimes we don’t realise how our own discomfort causes us to shut down important conversations.

Did you know that just the simple act of handing someone a tissue when they’re crying can interrupt the flow of what they’re sharing with us?

It’s something I picked up on after a decade working in end of life care. Patients interpreted being given a tissue as a sign that it wasn’t okay to cry.

The best thing we can do is simply to encourage our loved one to share how they’re feeling and then to sit back and listen to what they have to say.

“Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don’t have to do anything else. We don’t have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.” — Margaret J. Wheatley

Listening is indeed simple but for many of us, not easy. We can find ourselves listening to respond instead of just listening. And when we listen to respond, we can get so caught up in what we want to say that we forget that what is most important is our presence.

Create a safe space for your loved one. Let them know that when they’re with you they can talk about anything and that it’s okay to cry.

And then just sit with them in whatever it is they bring.

The ability to give someone permission to feel what they’re feeling and then to bear witness to their suffering is one of the greatest gifts we can give.

Don’t underestimate the power of presence.

2.) DON’T minimise/shame/blame those feelings

I’ve made mistakes over the past few weeks. I’ve not always said the best thing.

It’s not easy supporting an ex-partner through depression and given my ex has historically been quite a pessimistic person, trying to separate out what’s him and what’s the depression has been tricky.

Plus, there’s just a ton of confusing feelings that come with being the go-to person for someone you were once in an intimate relationship with.

I’m naturally optimistic and look for the gifts and the light even when life feels dark. I know there have been occasions when that part of my nature has spilled forth and I’ve tried to brighten up the situation by attempting to pull his attention in a more positive direction.

Maybe there are moments when that’s okay. I don’t know. I’m often so desperate to say and do the right thing, to not make a mistake, that I end up drowning in the confusion of it all.

But what I do know is that feelings must not be minimised, shamed or blamed. We feel what we feel and nobody has the right to tell us that’s not how it is. Our reality is our reality.

I know you will have experienced a time in your own life when someone has done that to you, said well-meaning things like:

  • “You’re just having a bad day. Things will look brighter in the morning.”
  • “You have so much to be grateful for”
  • “Why don’t you stop feeling sorry for yourself and go do something”
  • “There are people out there who have it so much worse than you”
  • “Try and focus on the positives”

I cringe because versions of those have spilled from my own lips over the years.

I wasn’t trying to be flippant. Most of the time I was trying to be helpful. Except that I wasn’t. I was shutting down conversations. Minimising how someone was feeling. Making them feel ashamed of what they were going through.

Because yes, many of us have much to be grateful for and indeed we can likely find a load of people worse off than we are.

But suffering isn’t a competition.

And blaming and shaming only leads to more loneliness and more isolation.

Instead, validate and acknowledge. Validate and acknowledge. Validate and acknowledge.

The more we do that for those we love, the safer they feel to be who they are with us.

3.) DO offer to help them find support

Trying to do it all on our own can be exhausting, especially when we’re unwell. That’s why it’s so important to offer to help your loved one find support.

  • Ask if they’d like you to make some calls.
  • Find out if they’d like you to accompany them to their first appointment.
  • Get a sense of who they have around them so you can put a support system in place.

They may want support but find the process of trying to get it too daunting. You can lessen the overwhelm by asking if you can do some of the heavy lifting for them in those initial stages.

If you’re not sure where to start, the following websites are helpful:

In the UK, head to the mental health charity, Mind for a ton of great resources and contacts.

In the US, the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) is a great place to start.

Your loved one’s doctor can also help in providing referrals to mental health services and therapists.

With the exception of suicide attempts and serious suicidal thoughts, encourage the seeking of support but don’t push too hard. Journey beside your loved one but not a million miles ahead. People need to feel they’re being collaborated with and are still in control of their own lives.

You can support and do all you can to reduce the stigma that comes with reaching out but ultimately the decision to seek help must come from within.

4.) DON’T try to fix it

For most of my life, I had a superwoman complex. Crisis? Drama? Illness? Don’t you worry, just let me don my cape and I’ll be there in a jiffy!

I was the helper. The fixer. The saviour.

That was the role I gave myself. Why? Because on reflection it made me feel useful. Needed. Loved.

But all we do by adopting that mindset is disempower people.

In order to fix people, we have to place them in the role of being broken.

In order to help, we have to see people as not being capable of helping themselves.

In order to play the role of the saviour, someone else has to play the role of a victim in need of saving.

It’s not a great scenario for anyone.

It wasn’t until I came across this quote, by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, that I realised what I was doing:

“Helping, fixing, and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak, when you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.”

In the aftermath of my ex coming close to taking his own life, he referred to himself frequently as being broken.

I don’t agree that we break. It feels more to me like we get cracked. And those cracks allow love to enter us and slowly wash and heal our wounds. I think we’re the strongest where we’ve been cracked open. That’s where we learn what we’re made of.

And we are always more resilient than we give ourselves credit for.

You can’t fix depression. That is not your role in all of this.

Your role is simply to be with the one you love.

5.) DO put yourself first

What I’ve realised these past few weeks is that my ex-partner’s depression does affect me. I have felt low and sad and tired. And as someone who tends to absorb the moods of those around them, it’s been hard for me to know how to deal with this.

I want to be kind and loving and compassionate. But I also don’t want to drown because that won’t help either of us.

If you feel that putting yourself first makes you selfish, you’re not alone. I feel the same way.

And yet I’ve realised that in amongst all of this it’s okay to laugh and feel joy. It’s okay to celebrate where my own life is at and to enjoy that. And it’s okay for you too. It doesn’t make you a bad person.

We can’t pour from an empty cup and drowning in what our loved one is experiencing won’t help anyone.

We have a responsibility both to ourselves and to them to put our own wellbeing in the number one spot.

“You always have to remember to take care of you first and foremost, because when you stop taking care of yourself, you get out of balance and you forget how to take care of others.” — Jada Pinkett Smith

It’s so important that you give yourself permission to have a life outside what others are going through.

Go and do things you enjoy, surround yourself with your own support system, seek out your own therapist if you feel that would be helpful.

Remind yourself that you’re a good person and that you’re doing the best you can.

Show up for yourself first so that you can show up for other people.

6.) DON’T take things personally

This one is on constant repeat in my head. Not just when it comes to being there for someone going through depression but just life in general. I’m just one of those people who tends to take things personally.

  • Someone I love doesn’t sound excited to hear from me? I must have done something wrong.
  • Someone is grumpy with me? I must have done something wrong.
  • Someone gets mad at me for setting a boundary? I must have done something wrong.
  • Someone doesn’t approve of what I’m doing? I must have done something wrong.
  • Someone doesn’t seem to care if I’m around or not? Yip. You guessed it. I must have done something wrong.

Or they don’t like me. They don’t love me. I’m not good enough.

For some of us who are sensitive souls, it’s hard not to internalise the behaviour of others as somehow being about our perceived failings or inadequacies.

It’s especially hard when you just want to be there for someone and love them through what they’re going through.

But however your depressed loved one is responding to your or behaving, please don’t take it personally as chances are it’s not about you.

It might be if you’ve been mega insensitive and repeatedly committed all the don’t crimes on this list but given that you’re reading this, I highly doubt that’s you.

There is a difference though between not taking things personally and being a doormat for abusive behaviour and the latter is not something you should be tolerating no matter how much you love someone or how dire their circumstances.

As long as it’s just a matter of them not looking happy to see you or turning down invitations for a walk or coffee, remind yourself that it’s not about you.

7.) DO be patient

Finally, something short and sweet — be patient. There is no overnight fix for depression, as with all healing, it takes time.

We live in a society that is always telling us to speed up and acquire more. What’s needed is to slow down and simply be.

Be patient. Spend time being with your loved one. Sit with them in their pain. Go at their pace. Just be there. Acknowledge and validate how they’re feeling and remind them over and over again that although life feels dark and painful now, it won’t always feel this way. Believe in them. Let them know that they will get through this and you’re not going anywhere.

I’m always mindful when I’m writing that what I think and feel about something today will not necessarily be how I think and feel about it tomorrow.

As I grow and gather more knowledge, I evolve as a human being and so too do my thoughts and feelings.

I imagine it’s much the same for you.

So please leave your thoughts, comments, feelings and experiences below to help me learn a little bit more about what it’s like both to have depression and to support someone you love who’s going through it.

The Courage Classroom

Unlocking the strength to live, love and lead with courage

Kathryn Wells

Written by

Lover of peanut butter, chocolate and the written word. Figuring life out one puzzle piece at a time.

The Courage Classroom

The Courage Classroom features pieces that explore how we can live, love and lead with courage.

Kathryn Wells

Written by

Lover of peanut butter, chocolate and the written word. Figuring life out one puzzle piece at a time.

The Courage Classroom

The Courage Classroom features pieces that explore how we can live, love and lead with courage.

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