How to help when a loved one is down

The Time to Talk campaign is music to my ears. Every year, it encourages people to talk about mental health problems like depression - to show how common they are, and how they don't need to be hard to talk about. Doctors have long since moved away from seeing depression as a 'lack of moral fibre', something that could be sorted if you just pulled yourself together. The Great British Public, sadly, still often sees it as a source of shame ...

The Time to Talk campaign is music to my ears. Every year, it encourages people to talk about mental health problems like depression - to show how common they are, and how they don't need to be hard to talk about. Doctors have long since moved away from seeing depression as a 'lack of moral fibre', something that could be sorted if you just pulled yourself together. The Great British Public, sadly, still often sees it as a source of shame.

Yet depression is a very real problem, and there's every chance it has affected someone close to you. More than one in five UK women, and one in 10 men, suffer from at least one episode of significant depression in a lifetime, and about two thirds of people will be troubled to some extent.

So if your loved one seems troubled, ask yourself if they could be depressed - and if they are, don't skirt around the subject. A kind word from you could be all the spur they need to get treatment that could change their lives.

What should you look out for?

If you're looking out for symptoms of depression in a loved one, the first ones to consider are whether in the last few weeks:

  • They've seemed down, depressed or hopeless
  • They don't seem to be taking pleasure in things they normally enjoy.

Other symptoms of depression include lack of appetite or overeating; sleeping all the time or poor sleep; poor concentration; having little energy; feeling guilty (they may say repeatedly that they've let people down or they're a failure); moving or speaking very slowly, or seeming fidgety and restless; or thoughts that they'd be better off dead or thoughts of harming themselves.

Any combination of two or more of these could mean depression.

How can you help your loved one?

Do let your loved one know you'll always be there for them. Make it clear you don't think it's their 'fault' and you understand they're unwell. Encourage them to seek help, and offer to go with them to appointments if they want. Try to be patient - they may be irritable. If you don't live with them, leave regular messages so they know you're thinking of them.

What's involved in talking treatment?

For mild depression, practical support in looking at and addressing any cause of depression can make all the difference. This could be through counselling for a few weeks or possible cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This kind of 'talking therapy' aims to help you understand that the way you feel affects the way you think or interpret things in your life. These thoughts can get into a negative spiral. For instance, if someone walks past you without saying hello, you or I would assume they're a bit distracted. If you're depressed, your reaction might be 'they've ignored me because they don't like me'; this leads to 'maybe nobody likes me' then 'maybe I'm a horrible person'. CBT helps you to challenge the negative thoughts and be more realistic.

But what if they're put on drugs?

In the right people, antidepressant medicines can be highly effective. They don't all work for everyone, and like all drugs they can cause side effects in some people. But they aren't 'addictive' in the medical sense - you don't need more and more to get the same effect as time goes on, and you don't crave them if you miss a dose. To reduce the chance of depression coming back, you should take them for six months after you feel better from a first episode of depression. Speak to your doctor if you're concerned.

Exercise - a secret weapon against depression

When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, a natural 'feel-good' hormone, the effects of which last long after your heart rate has come back to normal. It can reduce stress and anxiety and help sleep as well. If your loved one is depressed, they may find it hard to get motivated to exercise - encourage them gently to come out for a regular walk with you and build up the distance gradually.

With thanks to 'My Weekly' magazine where this article was originally published.

Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. EMIS has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.