When someone we love has depression, we go to great lengths to offer understanding and guidance. Although we do all we can to help, oftentimes our actions cause unintentional harm.
Take my story, for example. Five years ago, I married a beautiful, brilliant, and creative man—a man who has lived with depression since adolescence. Desiring to support him, I used to try and make myself an “expert” in mental health, endlessly searching for ways to cure his pain. In my eyes, if I willed it strongly enough or fought hard enough for both of us, his depression would be healed.
Now I know that approach never works. It wasn’t until I began to understand depression from a radically different place—one of compassion, gentleness, and love—did things begin to change. Interestingly enough, once I learned to let go and stop viewing his condition as a problem I needed to fix, my mental health and my husband’s improved dramatically.
Here are eight things I’ve learned about how to help a loved one with depression without losing yourself:
1. Compassion starts within you.
Practicing love and gentleness toward myself was the first step I took in creating a more loving and accepting environment for my family. It had to start from within. Sometimes I still fall into old patterns of frustration and the desire to “solve the problem,” but returning to an intention of offering kindness and understanding helps me better respond over time.
2. Know there is hope.
Despite the challenges of living, loving, and caring for someone with depression, there is hope for healing. The National Institute of Health states that 80 percent of those that seek help show improvement within 4 to 6 weeks.
3. Don’t give advice.
All too often we’re tempted to jump in and say, “When I was down, I did this and now I feel great.” This type of feedback, although well-meaning, has a real danger of enhancing feelings of inadequacy. Instead of offering advice, try modeling behavior instead. For example, if yoga supports your own mental health, keep doing it! Invite your loved one to join you, but allow them to decline without judgment or disappointment.
4. Be patient and let go of expectations.
With depression, there is no set timeline and progress is not always linear. Be prepared for setbacks and be sure to adopt your own self-care practices. Let go of how you think progress should look. While meditation or yoga may be effective for some, drinking a cup of coffee or playing video games could be another’s form of self-care.
5. Prioritize your own health first.
On an airplane, there’s a reason we’re told to secure our own oxygen mask first. In loving someone with depression, take this as your mantra. Make time to do things that nourish yourself. Develop a self-care plan and commit to it every day.
6. Talk openly about depression.
When it comes to mental health, there is still a stigma. We feel it is a weakness and we’re ashamed to talk about depression with our families, friends, and co-workers. Have the courage to speak up. Share your experience and ask for help. This is how to break the cycle of shame and find the support and connection we need to heal.
7. Embrace the little things.
What may seem simple—taking a shower, drinking water, going grocery shopping, or cooking a meal—often is hardest for someone with depression to maintain. Keeping up with healthy habits, like filling the pantry with healthy snacks or taking a stroll around the block, can be the most helpful way to offer support.
8. Be prepared.
If you think your loved one is at risk of harming his or herself, have a plan. Have a list of emergency health professionals to call. If you feel there is an imminent risk, remove any firearms, sharp objects, and potentially dangerous medicines from the home and call 911.
There will be always examples and stories of people who have fought this illness and gone on to lead amazing, happy, and fulfilling lives with the right help and treatment. My husband is one of them! Share these stories. Let your loved one know there is hope, and things will get better. Meet them where they are and remember that for both of you, there’s light at the end of this tunnel.
If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, call the NAMI helpline at (800)-950-6264 for support.
Author: Isa Nakielny
Image: Kathrin Honesta / Instagram
Editor: Danielle Beutell