Yesterday I was asked to provide suggestions regarding what someone can do to help/love someone going through depression.
As you read my answer, bear in mind, that I’m speaking from the perspective of what has helped me. This may not be welcomed by others. All our experiences are unique.
1. Empathise rather than sympathise
Please don’t sympathise. When people are sympathetic, they are more focused on their agenda than of the person they are helping. They say the right words – ‘sorry to hear that,’ but then change the focus: ‘can you have that project ready for me by Friday please?’ It’s dismissive. It’s as if they ticked a box to say they’d addressed the issue, and then couldn’t run from the subject fast enough.
For me, the most helpful responses have been empathetic. People have told me I’m not alone, they’re here for me, and in many cases, that they identify with my struggle. Some have shared similar experiences with me, not to make it about them, but to reassure me that it’s okay. This is a type of normal, a part of the human experience.
This wonderful video explains far better than I.
2. Connect rather than Give Advice (and don’t ask ‘how are you’ if you don’t want the answer.)
Advice has not been helpful. I’ve been subjected to quite a barrage of well intended but unsolicited advice:
- I’ve been told to take a walk each day (if they bothered to ask, they’d find out that I do).
- I’ve been told to stay off social media (if they bothered to listen, they’d know that I’m using social media because I desperately need distraction and connection. It breaks me out of my isolation.)
- I’ve been lectured about the excessive workload that has caused this (if they bothered to listen, they’d know my workload is not excessive, and has little if anything to do with what I’m going through.)
- I’ve been told that it’s probably to do with high levels of something or other in my blood stream and I need to change my diet. (If they asked, they’d find out my diet is healthy, and the blood tests the doctor conducted show there are no dietary or physiological factors)
All this is condescending. I may be depressed, I may be anxious, but I know how to manage and to access the support I need. I need people to respect and trust me, as right now, its hard to respect myself. Unsolicited advice makes the person giving it feel better, but it robs me of some of my sense of dignity.
It’s been really helpful to have people ask ‘how are things?’ and to have the opportunity to talk through some of what I’m experiencing with others. Depression is a lonely illness, permission to talk about it helps break that sense of isolation.
Yesterday, for example, I noticed that my school was running perfectly without me there for a week, and that the latest episode of my podcast, the Teachers Education Review, which didn’t include my input was absolutely fine. In a healthy state of mind, knowing that school and the podcast were fine would please me, but yesterday it sent me on a downward spiral of self loathing. I felt as if I’d been erased. I was superfluous, irrelevant. If I disappeared off the face of the earth, no one would even notice.
But a few people kept checked in on me: “Just getting in touch to find out how you’re going..” was one message. Another message simply said “You matter”. They helped me out of a deep hole. Connection. It’s important.
3. Respect Boundaries
Last week, during a phone call. I was feeling overwhelmed. I told the caller no less than three times that I needed to hang up, but they would not stop. “No, I’ll be just one more minute, let me finish, I won’t be long…” The caller couldn’t see what that I was shaking, having trouble breathing and on the verge of tears, but I shouldn’t need to explain. I needed my boundaries to be respected.
For me the phone has been an ongoing source of anxiety so I’ve asked people to contact me electronically instead. It gives me the time and space to think things through. I’m very grateful to my friends and colleagues who have all respected this. My anxious moments have reduced considerably.
I realise I’m fortunate. I have so many people who have reached out in support and are helping me through. Thank you to each and every one of you. You truly are making a difference.