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Helping a Loved One with Depression

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April 16, 2019
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Finding Ways to Help with Depression

Depression in someone we love is difficult to observe and even more challenging to deal with. We have a tendency to want our husband, wife, mother, father, grandfather, grandmother, son, daughter, brother, sister or beloved friend to “cheer up” and go out and live life.

But depression, by definition, causes people to lose interest in daily activities and feel uninterested or unable to pull themselves out of this dark place. If the depression deepens and doesn’t get treated, a loved one can be at risk for suicide. That’s what makes decisions so difficult when a loved one is in a fragile state of mental health.

Fortunately, those who care can help a loved one find a way to treat depression, especially by encouraging them to seek help from a mental health professional. Unfortunately, that advice isn’t always accepted. But it’s critical to keep offering assistance and support.

A Sister’s Dilemma About Her Brother’s Depression

In a New York Times article, “My Brother Wants Me To Keep His Depression Secret,” a young woman sought guidance from authors of an advice column about a difficult family situation. Her 19-year-old brother’s isolation was increasing, including when he was home from college for his father’s birthday party and surrounded by relatives. He retreated to his bedroom and spent much of his time behind the closed door. This caused misunderstanding and tension, but he didn’t want his parents to know about his struggle with depression.

His sister promised to help him find a way to deal with the depression, but also promised not to tell their parents. This is a troubling example of the stigma that still surrounds mental health issues. And while that stigma is decreasing thanks to more public discussion and increasing options for treatment, depression can still be considered a stigma in a personal situation like the one described in this family.

Many variations of requests for secrecy or resistance to treatment are challenging for those who reach out to loved ones dealing with depression. In all of these cases, it’s important for family members and friends to, often gently, offer support and guidance.

Depression Is Common

Millions of Americans suffer from depression. According to The Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 10 adults age 18 and over are depressed at any given time. Many groups of people age 45-64 are also at risk for depression, including women and men, minorities, and and those who are unemployed, divorced or recently retired. However, depression can be experienced at any stage of life and by anyone.

Depression is a serious condition and if left untreated can lead to deteriorating health and even suicide. The positive view is that depression is treatable and there are an increasing number of options available.

In a New York Times article that addresses the general issue of what to do when someone you know, including a friend or romantic partner, has severe depression. Heather Murphy reminds us that even with love and patience, we cannot fix another person, especially an adult, with severe depression. At some point, that person has to take the steps that lead to treatment. That help can come from a psychologist, psychologist or social worker. A primary care doctor can be a less formidable first step, especially if the person already trusts the physician and gets an appointment for an apparently unrelated issue. The primary care physician can encourage the person to meet with a mental health professional.

What To Do When A Loved One Suffers from Depression

Here are some recommendations on possible steps to take when loved one is struggling with depression.

  1. Educate yourself about depression: Our natural compassion works better when combined with facts. Find out about the physical and emotional causes of depression, the symptoms, and options for treatment.
  2. Recognize a cry for help: When a loved one confides in you about depression, offer comfort and support. That’s a connection that’s not only helpful to your loved one, but can be lifesaving. Then listen carefully to the person so you can determine what steps they are willing and ready to take to deal with the depression. Just being there and being nonjudgmental is incredibly important.
  3. Don’t try to cheer up the person: It’s more helpful to acknowledge their pain and express your love and support. Trying to point out the good things in the person’s life may backfire because the depressed person may think you don’t understand.
  4. Offer suggestions: A college student will likely have access to counselors on campus that can offer a gentle way to begin to seek help. Those counselors may be a step toward understanding and, if necessary, refer the student to other treatment. For someone of any age dealing with depression, support groups can be a big help, because the person realizes he or she is not alone. Often talk therapy, medication, exercise and a support group, or any combination of those, can help a person who feels hopeless begin to regain a sense of hope.
  5. Protect your own mental health: The effort to help someone with severe depression can be draining and upsetting. Know your own boundaries and maintain your own positive relationships and activities so you have the emotional and physical strength to continue to support your loved one. You can seek support and guidance from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

If suicide is a concern
: If you think your friend or loved one is at risk for suicide, call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention LIfeline, which takes calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week at 800-273-8255.


Strayed, Cheryl and Almond, Steve, “My Brother Wants Me to Keep His Depression Secret,” New York Times, Nov. 20,, 2018

Murphy, Heather, “What To Do When A Loved One Is Severely Depressed,” New York Times,, June 7, 2018

Healthy Place, “Depression Resources and Information,”, 2019

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