It is difficult for friends and family members to know how to respond to a loved one experiencing a mental illness. All too often the default family-and-friends response is initial panicky attention followed by frustrated withdrawal.
Clients in therapy frequently need two tiers of treatment: one to address their depression and anxiety and another one to address their feelings of rejection by loved ones during those dark times.
It is natural to want to withdraw when we do not know what to do, or when what we do seems to be ineffective. I’m speaking here both about the self-isolating behavior of the depressed person as well as their freaked-out friends who dump or cease contact with them. Our desire to feel capable can get in the way of our duty to be decent.
If you have a friend or family member experiencing depression you must check your own expectations out. If you think you can help by providing time and compassionate attention, that’s great. But if you think you can change them by telling them what to do or why they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do, that’s a problem.
Depression and anxiety do not respond to dismissal, arguing or declarations of how easy it would be if only the other person would X (fill in the blank).
A depressed person is not going to jump up off the couch and proclaim, “Wow! I never saw it that way before. Thanks for the reality check!” And then dash off to do socially significant volunteer work while teaching themselves French cooking.
Mental illness responds s-l-o-w-l-y to therapy, medication and time. The symptoms can be temporarily alleviated by consistent, loving contact in the same way that arthritis temporarily subsides with the ingestion of anti-inflammatory drugs like Tylenol. (Or for locals who prefer a more Bastyr-flavored approach, Boswellia, an Ayurvedic herb for arthritis).
If you have a friend or family member who is depressed or anxious, consider what you can emotionally “afford” to offer. Using your own emotional wellbeing as your guide, you can provide support as long as it does not cause feelings of resentment or burden. Perhaps a weekly walk or a monthly lunch or an occasional cultural event or a daily email or phone calls to check in. But. Not. All. Of. These.
Don’t worry if you don’t know what to say. They don’t either! But if you really want a direction you can start with, “I know this is a tough time for you” and then you can stop speaking. You don’t need to say more than that. You don’t need to take the pain away any more than you need to make the sun come out in December. You can’t.
(I want to recommend “The Secret Life of Words” about a Yugaslavian genocide survivor. Incredibly sensitive depiction of survivor’s guilt in the aftermath of catastrophic trauma. I highly recommend.)
- Depression Traps: Social Withdrawal, Rumination, and More (webmd.com)
- Some Of The Common Symptoms Of Depression (healthlifestyleforever.com)
- Insight into the Physical Symptoms of Depression (brighthub.com)
- Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Psychotic Depression an Appropriate Treatment? (brighthub.com)
- What to Expect from Family Counseling for Depressed Teens (brighthub.com)
- Teen Depression & Suicide: Is Your Child At Risk? (brighthub.com)