Anxiety and Depression account for the majority of mental health diagnoses in Canada. At any given time, at least 11.6% of Canadians aged 18 and over are dealing with a mood or anxiety disorder based on a survey in 2013. My experience suggests that this number is low, both because the statistics are now 5 years old, and because it’s based on self-report and we know that many people don’t report their struggles even when asked on anonymous surveys. One of the common questions we get here at Alongside You is how to support a friend or family member who is struggling with depression. In fact, we were asked again yesterday and that’s what instigated this article.
If you run a Google search on the subject, there are many articles on this topic, such as this one from the Mayo Clinic, or this one from HereToHelp. There are many great resources out there with many suggestions around educating yourself on depression, helping friends get exercise and eat healthy food, and similar tactics. These are all great suggestions and ideas and I encourage you to spend some time looking through the articles that are available.
In this piece, I want to take a slightly different road and look at how we can help a friend, family member, or other loved one who is struggling with depression in terms of how we need to be with them. This might sound a little strange because many of us (myself included) are practical, hands-on types who like practical strategies. The thing is, being who we need to be with people is a practical strategy, and it is very effective.
The Importance of Not Knowing
When we’re struggling with something, and certainly when that something is depression, we often feel misunderstood. We say things like, “They just don’t get it,” or, “Nobody understands how I feel,” and quite frankly, it’s usually true. Even for those of us who have struggled with depression in our lifetime, the experience of someone else may be very different. How it felt for us and how we responded may not line up with this person’s experience. If we assume we know how the other person is feeling, we run the risk of alienating them and making them feel even less understood than they already do.
So, our first job then is to listen and to listen to understand versus listening to respond. Often, especially when we’re under stress, we do the latter; we listen and feel the need to respond in the hope that it will help someone feel better or feel connected. Often, we’ll respond with something along the lines of, “Oh yeah, I totally know how you feel, I went through the exact same thing!” No, we didn’t. We may have been depressed, we even may have been through similar circumstances and reacted similarly, but we don’t know how they are feeling unless we ask and listen, and we most certainly didn’t go through the exact same thing. If we want to be helpful and fight against the alienation and isolation our loved one is likely experiencing, we need to listen to understand.
The Importance of Empathy
One of the greatest challenges we face in trying to support a loved one with depression is the fact that we don’t understand. In fact, this very thing often places a great deal of stress on us because we want to understand, we feel we need to understand. The fact of the matter is, we don’t need to understand to be helpful. If we build on this stance of not knowing, we can work toward understanding on a deeper level, understanding the emotional level, and by strengthening the connection between us. This, in a nutshell, is empathy.
Empathy is not our naturally occurring, number one go to strategy – our go-to natural strategy is usually sympathy. If you haven’t seen it already, I would encourage you to watch this short video of Brené Brown talking about the difference. When people are depressed, one of the most significant things that help is the connection with others. This is why empathy is so important – we can show empathy without understanding yet. It can be as simple as saying, “Wow, I don’t even know what to say right now but I’m glad you told me, and I’m here.” And yes, I totally stole that line from Brené Brown. I stole it because it’s that good. See, if we can admit our limitations and be vulnerable with our loved one that is struggling, not only do we encourage connection, but we model the vulnerability that they need in order to connect with us. If they can do this in return, it will directly combat those voices in their heads telling them that nobody cares, nobody listens, nobody understands, and they are not good enough.
If we can do the two things above, we stand a greater chance of success in this third thing I’m going to talk about: getting help. Most of us are proud people – we think we can do it all on our own and further, we think we should. I remember when I was dealing with major depression I thought it was because I was doing something wrong, that I just wasn’t working hard enough, and that I was a failure. Part of the reason that I believed this is because to my knowledge at the time, nobody I knew, and none of my family had ever struggled with depression, and certainly not the suicidal thoughts that were commonplace for me. This is where vulnerability and even some self-disclosure on our part can be helpful, particularly if we’ve struggled with depression ourselves. Some careful self-disclosure can normalize the struggle, and fight against the negative self-beliefs.
If we can listen to understand, and show empathy, we send the message to the one struggling that it’s ok that they’re struggling, it’s ok that they don’t have it all figured out, and it’s okay to ask for help. Now, when I say it’s ok I don’t mean it’s pleasant, or that we should like being depressed, or anything along these lines. What I mean is that it’s not because of some inherent flaw in who they are that they are struggling, and it certainly isn’t because they’re not worth it.
See, by spending time listening and understanding, spending time in empathy and connection, we are sending a strong message. That message is, “You’re worth it.” In my opinion, this is the single most important message for anyone to receive when they are dealing with depression because if their belief about themselves is that they aren’t worth it, then why would they tell anyone how they feel? Why would they open up to someone? Finally, why would they bother asking for help, because they don’t deserve it?
If we can help our loved ones come to a place of even beginning to understand that they are worth it, they are loved, and they are valuable then we stand a much better chance of succeeding at getting them the help they need. This is where we can again show vulnerability and explain that we love them, but we don’t possess the skills necessary to help them recover fully, the skills that a mental health professional does. This is also where we can reinforce that we’d like to help them get the help they need and that we will be there alongside them as they go through this. In fact, we can emphasize that we will go through this together with them.
How We Are With People Is Most Important
The reality is that helping a loved one who is struggling with depression is usually a start and stop, back and forth, messy process. Most of the time, emphasizing the practical strategies doesn’t work very well. Why is this? Because we don’t have the connection needed where the person will believe they are worth it, that they are loveable, and that recovery is possible. If we can be with the person on a deeper, empathic level, we give them the best chance possible to buy into the recovery process and we show them that they’re not alone.
If you’re reading this because you have a loved one struggling, or because you are that loved one struggling, I encourage you to take the first step toward recovery. If we can be of help to you, please don’t hesitate to ask. This is why Alongside You exists – because we believe that everyone is worth it. Feel free to contact us!