What is depression?
Everyone has bad days, sometimes day stretch into difficult weeks or months, perhaps as a result of divorce, redundancy or chronic illness. Feeling low might be part of these experiences, a major depressive episode is not just sadness.
It is a common mental health problem, which can vary in severity from mild to severe. Importantly, it is a treatable mental health condition, which responds well to psychological interventions. It can also be treated by medication, ideally in combination with psychological therapy.
Depression is characterised by persistently lowered or irritable mood, and it is associated with a range of physical symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, changes to appetite and difficulties with concentration and motivation. It is also associated with feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness, guilt and sometimes suicidal ideation. (One in 16 Australians is currently experiencing depression -beyond blue.).
When someone you care about is depressed
When someone you care about is depressed it can be painful to watch them suffering. It can be distressing to hear them speak negatively about themselves or their future. It can also be frustrating and difficult to understand. At times you may be provoked to anger, if only they could just “get over it’.
The person may speak about feeling powerless to change how they feel, and you may also feel helpless to assist them. Feelings of depression can in this way be contagious at times, and it can be challenging to know how to best support this person. It is also important that you also look after your own mental health needs and seek support if necessary.
Listen with Openness. Don’t instruct.
It is the hardest thing in the world to simply change the way you feel. It’s very difficult to just snap out of depression, or to just ‘stop worrying and relax’. How we feel is a combination of the things we say to ourselves (our thoughts), our actions (what we do or don’t do), our bodily reactions and the systems of beliefs we have about ourselves and others which are formed often by our experiences in the past.
When someone lectures us, we often tend to feel defensive, or we may feel criticised and inadequate. The person who is depressed is feeling this way already, so although the intention of the person providing the ‘pep-talk’ is well-meaning, the experience of the person on the receiving end may be the opposite.
Try to understand the reasons behind your partner or your friend’s difficulties. What has happened that has gone so terribly wrong? Why has this occurred now? Try and be with the person in their difficult feelings, rather than telling them what they ought to do or how they ought to feel. Try and suspend your opinions and listen from a place of openness and curiosity. Attempt to understand them and stand alongside them.
If your partner or friend feels understood, or at least not judged, they are much more likely to respect your suggestions about engaging in activities to help change how they feel, maybe pleasurable activities, undertaking something that they have been afraid of doing, or perhaps calling to access mental health support.
Suggest doing something different or pleasurable together
You know your partner or close friend well. You may be able to suggest some activities that they have enjoyed in the past, or something that you can hopefully both enjoy together. There are many ways to manage difficult feelings, distracting the mind is one. Another way to manage difficult feelings is to change what you do, people can derive benefit from physical activity. Another is changing levels of arousal within the body by practicing mindfulness or relaxation.
Remind your friend or partner that you care about them and that you want to support them. Tell them in words that make sense to you, that as much as it pains you to see them like this, that you believe in them. Many people with depression believe they are unworthy and essentially a bad person. Tell your friend that these thoughts are the result of the depression, you can remind your partner or friend that you know them to be a good person who deserves to feel good about themselves.
Suicidal ideation and actions
People with depression may have thoughts about suicide. These thoughts can range from fleeting ideas to escape, to serious plans and intent to harm oneself. Thoughts about suicide should be taken seriously, especially if the person has a history of suicide attempts in the past and this is out of character.
Don’t be afraid to ask your partner or friend directly. “Do you ever think about suicide?”
If you don’t know, then you can be there to offer support. There are many services which can assist if the answer is yes.
- Lifeline 13 11 14
- Beyond blue 1300 22 4636
- e headspace (if under 25) https://www.eheadspace.org.au/index.php/eheadspace/
- Consult your GP about a referral to a psychologist
If you have grave fears for a person’s safety you should call the triage service of your local area mental health service, or attend your local hospital’s emergency department.
Information about Victorian mental health services can be found here
Don’t Forget Yourself
Take care of yourself too. Your mental and physical health and wellbeing matters. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, whether this is from your own network of friends and family or professional supports such as a clinical psychologist.