How to Help Your Loved Ones Through Depression With Trust
You don’t need to be a mental health professional to help a friend
I was only 21 when someone with severe depression first asked for my support. I was a suicide help-line counselor and, officially, I was only allowed to give the man on the other end of the phone 20 minutes of my time. It’s now over 20 years since that call, but I still remember it vividly. Mental health is a topic that I write about often — like this story about the danger of “it’s all in your head” thinking— because mental health is a topic that has featured in both my professional and personal life. I was raised by mental health nurses and therapists, and then did formal counselling training myself. We openly discuss mental health and mental illness in our family and many of us have first-hand experience with various degrees of depression, burnout, and anxiety. Even with that background, it still took me a long time to learn how to effectively help others through periods of depression. One of the things I’m still learning is the importance of trust. The suicide help-line caller 20 years ago, was my first experience with the need for trust. Breaking the rules On that call, I broke the time-limit rule and stayed with him for an hour. I ran through our procedures for suicidal callers and offered numbers of places he could go, so he wasn’t alone. “Will you ring them?” I asked, well aware I’d stretched our time much further than I should have. He sounded calmer. “Yes. I will. Thank you.” There was no way to follow up on the helpline. I have no idea what happened to him that night or if he’s okay. I’d pushed the boundaries of my help, but I couldn’t ask for his details or trace his number. There was a saying drummed into us in our training: “We need to trust people to do the best for themselves with the information they have.” I was meant to trust people to use the information I could give, and then support themselves in the way they needed to next. I’m still finding it difficult to apply that principle in my real-life relationships, but I’m better at it than I used to be. When it came to depression, I struggled to trust my friends and family members. What if I lost them? I was the only one I trusted to do the supporting. I learned later, there’s a danger in having that kind of attitude… Overstepping Boundaries Shelley* handed me a box of pills and placed her bag in my hallway. “I don’t trust myself with these,” she said. “I’m worried I’ll overdose.”
She looked exhausted, like she’d been battling something all night.
“Thanks for letting me stay.”
“Of course,” I replied, taking the box and reminding myself to hide it and my own medications later when she wasn’t looking.
I hadn’t hesitated when she’d asked to stay for a few nights. I’d struggled with depression in my early 20s and knew how important support was to get through the worst of it. I’d had my parents to lean on, but she lived on her own and only had her friends nearby.
Our small house was busy and crowded with two preschoolers, but I didn’t want to risk saying no and losing my friend. It was only a few nights.
Shelley slept for two days, only waking up for meals and her medication. Then she called the doctor and arranged for therapy. She stayed a week and then, feeling the worst had passed, she returned home.
Shelley struggled with long-term depression and needed occasional support, but mostly just a friend. She didn’t need me attempting to rescue her.
She was quite capable of managing her own mental health. That didn’t stop me from trying.
In the years I knew her, I’m sure I overstepped my helping boundaries — and hers — several times. I checked in too often. I worried too much.
I took on the role of therapist, rather than a supportive friend. She needed me to trust her, and I struggled to do that.
Our role is not easy, but it is simple
Your friends and family members need you when they’re struggling with depression.
There are times when you need to step in, care for them, cook their meals, love and support them. Depression is dark, exhausting, and lonely, and you can be the difference for someone between life and death.
What you need to be aware of are your boundaries and your limits.
As a trained suicide help-line counselor, I knew there should have been boundaries and limits. But in my personal life, I was too afraid to lose people I loved. I stepped into the role of a therapist, whether they wanted it or not.
When we attempt to rescue people, we can actually make them dependent on us and take away their power. We can make people feel like a burden, which is the last thing anyone wants to feel.
Good support is empowering
The Eisenberg Family Depression Center, at the University of Michigan, states it’s empowering for people with depression to feel in charge of their own future and treatment.
They explain that everyone’s experience with depression is different, and when people are active participants in their own healthcare, they can decide what path is best for them to feel and function better.
We can help our loved ones feel empowered by:
respecting them and being non-judgmental.
listening without advice to their feelings and what they want.
supporting them to make their own decisions about their healthcare and treatment.
— adapted from New South Wales Government, Health Department You can support someone you love, listen to them and let them know you’re there for them. The rest they need to work on themselves with the help of professionals. Your job is to trust that they can. When you take on the role of therapist and doctor, you don’t acknowledge your own limits. Trust people and they’ll feel more comfortable asking for help knowing they won’t be a burden to you or cause you to burnout. Practical ways to help someone with depression
Check-in regularly for a chat in person or on the phone. Let them know you’re there for them.
Keep conversations supportive and non-judgmental. Make sure you learn about depression: they can’t “snap out of it,” “cheer up” or “pull themselves together”. That’s not how depression works.
Send funny GIFs, messages, and other little reminders that you’re thinking of them.
Do something small and fun together — watch a funny show, listen to music together, or go for a gentle walk. It can be hard for people to get moving or attempt to be social when they feel depressed.
Invite them for meals or bring a meal to share at their house.
Make plans for the near future. Having things to look forward to helps.
Look after your own mental health.
Contact an emergency mental health team in your area if you feel they are going to harm themselves. Don’t leave them alone, but get expert help.
It might seem small, but just doing things together, being there and staying connected can be a big help. — Depression.org.nz
*Name and details changed for privacy
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