Other Pages On

relationships, psychology

Last updated: Sep 15th, 2016

How to Help Someone With Depression


Painting of an older woman comforting a younger woman holding her face in her hands
An 1894 painting by Walter Langley

Depression is a state and condition of body and mind characterized by low mood, troubled thoughts, and a lack of energy, initiative, and decisiveness. Depression can be particularly difficult to deal with when someone close to you, a friend, family member, or co-worker has it.

Here I offer a few tips from my own personal experience, both as someone who has suffered from depression and who has at times been able to help, or unable to help others close to me who have been depressed.

Before you start reading though, I want to offer the most important piece of advice: while it is always good and honorable to want to help a person as much as possible, and to do your best to help that person, it is not your responsibility to do so and it does not necessarily mean you did anything wrong if you were unable to help them. Psychological conditions, like any kind of illness, can be unpredictable. In order to protect your own well-being, it is imperative that before you start trying to help someone, you understand and embrace the fact that you may not be able to help them.

General things to do to help

Listening with empathy, but with a filter

Listening is a skill, and I see listening to a depressed person as a bit of an art. A depressed person's narratives of their situation, their life, their feelings even, can be riddled with distortions, sometimes severe, which paint an overwhelmingly negative picture of their experiences. Depression has a way of diminishing or filtering out positive experiences, and making a person focus on and magnify or exaggerate negative ones.

Active, empathetic listening, in which you demonstrate an understanding of the feelings a person is experiencing, can be immensely healing. With depression, however, there is a danger with such listening: the danger that you listen (or respond to the person) in such a way that reinforces untruthful negative aspects of their thinking.

Sometimes, extended listening without interruption can actually be among the worst things that you can do to a depressed person, although this is highly situational, and dependent on the individual. The harm with such listening is that if you listen passively, it can come across as validating the truth of the specific things that the depressed person is saying, which in many cases can strengthen and worsen their depression.

I find the gold standard for listening to a depressed person, is to empathize with the emotions that the person is feeling, but without agreeing with specific thoughts that seem to contain distortions. Ideally, you can actively listen by asking questions to make sure that you understand exactly what the person is thinking and feeling, but in such a way that gently demonstrates the subjectivity of the person's narrative.

An example of this would be, if a person says: "I went to the meeting, and everyone was really cold and unfriendly towards me. I could tell they disliked me and just wanted me to leave. I felt horribly uncomfortable the whole time." If you passively listen, this might validate the negative thoughts like "they dislike me and just wanted me to leave". Some more positive ways to actively listen while subtly questioning the negative thoughts, might be to respond: "So you got the impression that they didn't like you very much?" (this shows you understood what they said, but you mildly understate it, changing "dislike me" to "didn't like you very much", and by communicating that it's the person's impression, rather than objective truth) or "What specific things did they do, that led you to think that they wanted you to leave?" )(This steers the conversation in the direction of specifics, and away from broad, general statements, and this shift can steer people into a more positive mindset.) You might also want to connect or show the person you relate (this can help them feel solidarity) if you have situations where you've felt similarly, like: "I've gotten that sense with some groups of people I've been in, and it feels really awful to me too." (This communicates that it's "getting a sense" or impression rather than an objective truth, but it also communicates that you understand and relate to the feeling.)

Questions to ask to help a depressed person feel better

Asking pointed, specific, simple questions can be one of the best ways to bring immediate relief to someone who is feeling depressed. The goal of the questions is to use the Socratic method to help a depressed person realize that their depressive thoughts are irrational, and to help them think more positive and more rational thoughts. Asking questions is important, as depressed people tend to respond more negatively to any statement, and will often mentally reject any statement you make that does not fit with their negative picture of the world. If you press too hard with statements that contradict their negative view, they may become angry with you, or they may simply shut down entirely, stop listening to you, and close themselves off. If instead you ask questions that lead them to make those same statements themselves, as a response to your questions, they will be more likely to accept them and believe them. There are, however, a few cases where it can be helpful to be very direct and assertive, and disagree with what the person is saying, which I describe below.

While these approaches can often help, they don't always help. Make sure to read the person's reaction, and don't continue asking questions if they seem annoyed or seem to be feeling worse in response to what you are asking.

Things to avoid saying to a depressed person

Here I explain both how to, and how not to recommend for someone to see a counselor.

Before I get into specific things to avoid saying, I also want to emphasize that it is important not to talk down to a person, not to treat them like they are crazy or there is something wrong with them, and also, not to talk or act as if the person is a mess.

Depressed people often feel like a wreck, they feel like their life is falling apart and they are unable to cope with things. While you certainly do not wish to downplay the person's feelings to the point where they will feel like you are not listening to or acknowledging them, you want to be careful that you do not lead the person to feel that their feeling that their life is a mess is justified. The best behavior is to listen, but keep emphasizing the positive so that the person gradually starts to realize that they are actually better off than they initially thought.

Dealing with a depressed coworker

Depression can be particularly problematic in the workplace; depressed people often (not always) become considerably less productive, and their negative attitude can harm the morale and sometimes introduce tension and sour work relationships.

People can become depressed in association with events outside their workplace, or in association with work itself, but once depression takes hold, it often spills over into all aspects of their life.

Here are some of my recommendations for how to help a depressed coworker:

Further Resources

For a radio program about depression, I recommend Combating Depression With Meditation, Diet which is an interview with Dr. Andrew Weil on NPR.

There are numerous outstanding web resources about depression. I recommend the following pages:

Comments are moderated. Follow Cazort.net's comment policy for your comment to be approved.

blog comments powered by Disqus