We live in a world with a lot of negativity. Behind the smiles of the advertising and the apparent fun and laughter of social media there are many people struggling with depressive thoughts and feelings. (See The Scale Of Mental Health Problems And What To Do About Them).
Some of it is because of the everyday worries and concerns of life. There are tragedies and setbacks like bereavement, diagnosis of major illness or sudden loss of a job.
For others it is more deeply rooted in questions of meaning and ultimate purpose. (See Podcast #035: What Is Life Really All About?)
Some people go onto clinical depression, but for many others life can feel like living under a continual dark cloud. There are distinct changes in their energy, optimism and motivation.
Maybe you have a close friend or loved one who is struggling with negative thoughts and feelings. You have seen a change in the way they come across. You are not sure how to handle them. What should you say or not say? How should you approach them?
Sometimes it is hard to know what to say when speaking to a loved one about how they are coming across to you. You might fear that if you bring up your concerns they will get angry, feel insulted, or ignore you. You may be unsure what questions to ask or how to be supportive. It is so easy to just say nothing and miss the opportunity to offer genuine hope, comfort and encouragement.
If you don’t know where to start, the following suggestions may help.
1. Don't feel you have to have all the answers.
Being a compassionate listener is often far more important than giving advice. It is not about immediately trying to 'fix' the person as it is about empathy and understanding of what they are feeling and going through. It is also about encouraging the person to talk about their feelings and be willing to listen without judgement. They may be holding thoughts, worries and fears they have never shared with anyone else. By creating a safe space for them to bring these into the open can bring enormous relief. (Also see 5 Levels Of Listening And Communication).
2. It is likely you are going to have to persevere and keep coming back .
Don’t expect a single conversation to be the end of it. Depressed people tend to withdraw from others and isolate themselves. It is likely this has gone on for some time. You may need to express your concern for them and your willingness to listen over and over again. Be gentle, yet persistent. In their negative thought patterns they may be questioning if you really do care about them. Your quiet dependability and reliability can make a real difference in reaching through to them. Your actions will then speak louder than your words.
3. Things you might say to start the conversation could include:
"I have been feeling concerned about you lately."
"Recently, I have noticed some differences in you and wondered how you are doing."
"I wanted to check in with you because you have seemed pretty down lately."
It's important after this to then wait and give time for them to slowly open up. You may need to become comfortable with just sitting in silence to help build their trust and confidence.
4. Here are some follow up questions it might well be worth asking:
"When did you begin feeling like this?"
"Did something happen that made you start feeling this way?"
"How can I best support you right now?"
"Have you thought about getting help?"
Being supportive involves offering with your concern and sympathy also encouragement and hope. Very often, this is a matter of talking to the person in language that they will understand and respond to while in a depressed mind frame. And that can take significantly more time than other conversations you are use to having.
5. Other things you can say at appropriate times in the silence:
"You are not alone in this. I’m here for you."
"You may not believe it now, but the way you’re feeling will change."
"I may not be able to understand exactly how you feel, but I care about you and want to help."
"When you want to give up, tell yourself you will hold on for just one more day, hour, minute—whatever you can manage."
"You are important to me. Your life is important to me."
"Tell me what I can do now to help you."
6. There are also some definite things to avoid saying:
- Be very careful about not jumping to conclusions about what the problem might be or how the person might be feeling.
- Don't put words into their mouth or complete their sentences for them.
- Don't use words like 'should' or 'ought'.
- Don't get caught up with universal blanket statements from the person like 'it's all a disaster'; 'my life is such a mess'. If they say something like this then try to break down what they are saying to find out what they actually mean.
- Don't ay anything or make promises you cannot follow though.
- Don't use cliche phrases like 'don't worry it will pass', 'I know how you feel', 'just look on the bright side', 'it's all in your head', 'we all go through times like this', 'you have so much to live for why would you want to die?', 'I can't do anything about your situation', 'just snap out of it', 'what's wrong with you?', 'shouldn't you be better now?'
- Don't be sworn to secrecy by the person as a way to win their confidence. It is important to explain there is a risk to themselves or others you may have to tell others.
- Don't pass judgement on what the person says or feels.
7. Take care of yourself as well!
Caring for others who are struggling with depression can become overwhelming and exhausting. Try not to carry all the responsibility on your own. It is important to have others to talk with and share the responsibility you are feeling for the the depressed person. While you care for others, it is important you also care for yourself. (Also see What Fills You Up And What Drains You Down).
From your own experience with others who have struggled with low mood, or maybe your own life, what would you add to these suggestions?
You may also find of interest:
Why I Am Working On Becoming A Happier Person
Podcast #004: Combatting Depression
My own personal journey through depressive thinking