Experts share what you can do to help.

By By Martine Foreman
Updated: December 27, 2017
Photo: Getty Images/portishead1

If you're like many women, you want the people you love to see the best parts of you. During my childhood, my mom did just that. She hid all of her challenges from us-including her struggle with depression. She was my everything. It was only when I reached adulthood that I finally began to understand this part of her she had kept hidden-and the roles reversed.

As an adult, I watched as my mother's depression become increasingly difficult to manage. She ultimately tried to take her life, and no one in my family saw it coming. Following her attempt, I felt lost, angry and confused. Did I miss something? How could I not realize things were that bad? What more could I have done to help her? I wrestled with those questions for a long time. I wanted to know if there was something I could have done differently. I also wanted to know what I needed to do moving forward. I was terrified she would find herself in that dark place again.

In the years since her suicide attempt, I've been a constant source of support for my mom, helping her manage her mental and physical health. Yet, despite her subsequent stroke, cancer, and other health issues, her mental health remains the most challenging piece of the puzzle. It's what causes the two of us the most pain.

In 2015, 6.7 percent of the U.S. adult population had at least one major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. And supporting a loved one with depression isn't always easy. You may have a hard time figuring out what you should say or do. I struggled with that for quite some time. I wanted to be there for her, but I wasn't sure how. Later, I realized that I needed to learn how to be there for her.

If someone you love is struggling with depression, here are a few tips to guide the way.

1. Get educated

"You can't solve the problem until you know what the problem is, so defining the issue helps immensely," says Bergina Isbell, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist. "Determining if it's just having the blues over a disappointment, grief over a lost loved one, or clinical depression can affect your approach." So, first and foremost, "find out more about what's bothering your friend or loved one," she says. If it is clinical depression, educating yourself becomes crucial, says Indira Maharaj-Walls, LMSW. People generally think of depression as sadness that sticks around, but they often don't understand how depression really works and how challenging it is to battle; knowledge will help avoid misconceptions and allow you to provide more support, Maharaj-Walls says.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America is a great source of information. Dr. Isbell also suggests Mental Health America for more formal information about depression, grief, and other mental health educational resources. (Related: Did You Know There Are 4 Different Types of Depression?)

2. Practice self-care

"Caring for someone facing depression is depressing," says psychotherapist Mayra Figueroa-Clark, LCSW. Assuring that you are able to practice regular self-care, are connected with a community of like-minded people, and know when to say "no" is actually more important than you may realize, explains Figueroa-Clark. When we want to help the ones we love, it's not uncommon to lose sight of our own needs. Keep in mind that in order to truly offer someone you love help, you need to be at your best-which means taking care of yourself when you need it. (Related: How to Make Time for Self-Care When You Have None)

3. Ask them what they need

Although asking someone what they need seems simple enough, it's often overlooked by friends who want to help. The truth is, you can offer the best support by just asking the person you love what they need. "On one hand, the nature of their illness may make it so they are not sure of what will help them, but sometimes, they can give insight into what helps and what doesn't cause harm," says Glenna Anderson, LCSW. You should give your loved one the space to be honest with you about what they need and be willing to execute, even if you don't think it's valuable or what you would need in the same situation, Anderson explains. Ask questions and you will be able to offer what's needed most.

4. Don't be the only source of support

Years ago, when I truly started to understand the complexities of my mother's depression, I realized that I was becoming her only source of support. I now know that this arrangement was unhealthy for both of us. "Consider support groups through the National Alliance on Mental Illness," says Dr. Isbell. They offer family groups to educate yourself about mental illness as well as peer groups for those dealing with depression to help begin the process of getting help, Dr. Isbell explains. You should also have a community of friends and family who can help you support your loved one. "Plan a meeting and see if others are available to do small things," says Figueroa-Clark. Everything from checking in with a phone call to preparing a meal helps when it comes to supporting a struggling friend, Figueroa-Clark explains. Just remember that you shouldn't be the only person providing this support. Even if the person battling depression is your parent or spouse, you don't need to do this alone. "Be open and available to listen, but also balance this with a willingness to help them reach out for professional help," says Dr. Isbell.

5. Don't be critical or judgmental

Being critical or passing judgment often happens unintentionally, but it also causes a great deal of harm. "Never criticize or minimize their feelings as this tends to make matters worse," says Maharaj-Walls. Instead, focus on showing empathy. When you take time to put yourself in someone else's shoes, the person will view you as a safe source of love and support. This doesn't mean you need to agree with the choices they've made, but you should give them the space to be vulnerable without worrying about a negative response from you, she says. "Listen with an empathetic ear," says Dr. Isbell. "Your friend's life may look picture perfect from the outside, but you have no idea what they've dealt with in the past or are dealing with now." Things aren't always what they seem, so offer support without the criticism.

If you or someone you love is depressed and considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

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