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Loving Someone With Depression

Depression is devastating. When someone is suffering from depression, their entire life is blown apart. It can be a massive struggle just to make it through each day. But they aren’t the only ones who struggle. The people who are often forgotten are the loved ones of a person with depression. No-one tells them how to cope. They don’t know what to do. I would like to try and offer some advice to those people.

Knowing somebody you love is struggling with depression leaves you feeling incredibly helpless. You feel if you could say the right thing, or do something special, that maybe you will be able to help them to get better. But you don’t know what to say or what to do.

You try a gentle approach, you try a firm approach. You give them space, you try to get them to open up. You suggest things that can help. You buy them presents. You say encouraging things, you get frustrated and argue. Yet nothing you do seems to make any difference.

From my experience, the big mistake that people often make is that they treat depression as a mood, as if saying or doing the right thing will lift the depression. What you must remember is that depression isn’t a mood – it’s a very debilitating illness.

If somebody had a broken leg, you wouldn’t tell them to go for a run. You would understand that it will take time, patience and rehabilitation to get better. When the leg heals and you can walk again, it still can take weeks for it to regain full strength. It may never be as strong again. Depending on how bad the break was, it may alter how you walk, what exercise you can do, even how you stand. It may never be the same again.

That is EXACTLY what depression is like.

Just because you can’t see an injury doesn’t mean that it isn’t debilitating. After my worst bout of depression, it took months before I felt I could do my job properly. Even now, two years on, I’m not the same as I was. I don’t do overtime. I don’t work nightshifts.I don’t get left on my own for too long. There are countless other little things as well. This is because my depression completely changed my entire outlook on life, and it changed who I was as a person.

When their loved ones are battling depression human nature is to try and ‘fix’ them. For a lot of people, this approach won’t work. Whilst there are things you can do, like giving the day a routine, and trying to find activities to keep the persons’ mind active, you are not going to be able to make someone ‘snap out of it’.

Try and imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen.

Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. When I was at my worst, everybody I tried to talk to would give me an opinion on how I could ‘make things better’. The thing was, I wasn’t asking for an opinion. I just wanted to relay how I felt, and for the person to listen, give me a hug and reassure me that however long it took, they would stay in the darkness with me until I found my own way out. Yet no-one listened. They talked, and they advised, and they suggested, and they tried to help, but they didn’t LISTEN. That, more than anything, is what you need to do. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.

Yes, it’s hard. In many ways, hearing my loved ones tell me about their darkness was worse than living in my own. Yes, it’s often thankless. And yes, at times, you will feel rejected. But don’t give up on them. Support them, love them, and be there for them until they find the strength to get better.

And most of all, when they talk, listen.

The Author

You can read Andrew Lawes’ blog HERE

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Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article or in the comments below, are not those held by CALM or its Trustees unless stated, and liability cannot be accepted for such comments. We encourage friendly and constructive debate, but please don't share personal contact details when commenting and exercise caution when considering any advice offered by others. We don’t allow abusive, offensive or inappropriate comments or comments that could be interpreted as libellous, defamatory or commercial and we will remove these without warning as and when we find them.

17 Responses to this article

  1. Great piece Andrew; thank you for writing it. Just listening without a burning desire to fix someone who is depressed and ‘waiting in the tunnel with them’ is such a counter-intuitive thing that for some it will take reading a personal account like yours to even realise this is usually the healthiest option- for both parties involved.

    FabioZucc 24th September 2012 at 10:07 pm
  2. Fabulous writing, Andrew. The human nature to want to fix things does seem to get in the way doesn’t it? I will never forget the feeling when someone finally just listened and told me they would always be there for me. As the person struggling, you feel as though you’re being a bother to them when you call on them for support. Luckily, I had someone who called me to see if I needed them, and they always seemed to call at my lowest points.

    I follow and read your blog. Your writing draws such raw emotions for me that it takes me a long time to get through some posts, but I make it through eventually. This post should be printed and handed out to everyone, because we all know someone struggling with depression and want to help. Again, fabulous writing. I wish you nothing but the best and hope you stay strong.

    Shakeitsalome 28th September 2012 at 12:44 pm
  3. Thank you for writing this. I have been battling with depression for quite a while and every word you said is spot on. I am still in my dark tunnel and you are right when you say that having someone try to drag you out is terrifying. It takes tiny baby steps to recover and someone there to catch you when you hit a really bad patch. I am going to send your post to my mum so she can have a better understanding of how it feels to be me and how to help.
    Your writing gave me a lump in my throat but I am really glad you said it as it is.

    Louise 29th September 2012 at 5:19 pm
  4. Hi Andrew,
    Great piece of writing on something that really needs discussing. Someone very close to me is suffering from PTSD and its been so tough to see them suffer and feel helpless but I have done pretty much everything you have mentioned in this post and have seen them start to slowly slowly get better, regain the life that they once had before this horrible illness took over.

    Such great analogies throughout your piece, people need to remember that depression, no matter what form is not just a “phase” or a mood swing but something that has a huge impact on a persons life.

    Gemma 2nd October 2012 at 10:14 pm
  5. What if they won’t talk, Andrew…what then? It’s a great help to read this, but so very hard for a parent to do.

    Sue 3rd October 2012 at 3:16 am
  6. Hi Sue,

    It’s also really hard for me to write this reply to you, but my answer to your question is only that you tell your child that you are there to listen and that you’re ready to wait until he or she is ready to talk, and keep saying it. Keep saying it in different ways, leave notes, a hand on the shoulder when there aren’t any words, an acknowledgement that you know it’s tough right now. Sometimes people have nothing that makes sense to tell you, but they can still be reached if they don’t feel pressured to explain. The thing that finally made me cry and start getting it out last time I was ill was a mate hugging me. I don’t think either of us needed any more explanation between us because it was about as honest as anything could have possibly been. Just human connection. Nothing magic or technological or therapuetic or high minded. Just basic human contact that finally made me feel as if I wasn’t so alone. It’s not something you can force, but if you keep offering then that’s the best anybody can do. Probably the hardest thing you’ll ever do, and keep on doing for as long as it takes, and all I can wish you is hope and tenacity and a sense of yourself throughout. Make sure you don’t forget to take care of yourself too.

    sunhawthorn 10th October 2012 at 10:40 pm
  7. This article made so much sense to me, my partner of 5 years took his own life 2 years ago aged 35, living with him with depression was so so hard I just never knew what to do nothing seemed right, he wouldn’t get help, I tried to speak to his doctor on numerous attention and they wouldn’t listen and eventually I had to move myself and my son to a new house as his depression had started to affect my son (I will always feel guilty for this but my child had to come first), sadly when I had been informed he had died it wasn’t a huge shock, obviously devestating but I think at the back of my mind I would see it happening and the lack of support I received as his partner was awful.
    CALM were at an event at my university on world mental health day and when I initially heard what you did I could not go near the stall, I just didn’t want to hear about it but have gradually over the last few days got up the courage to look at your website, just want to say thank you xx

    Loubeelou 14th October 2012 at 9:18 pm
  8. After spending the last few days thanklessly searching for advice on how to support my partner, your guys on Twitter sent me this way, and it is easily the most honest, frank and calming (please excuse the pun) piece of writing I have read. It makes me feel less afraid to just listen, and more confident to do just that.

    Thank you

    Paul 26th February 2013 at 8:55 pm
  9. I find this article a great help. I think I knew not to try and get my partner to ‘snap out of it’, what I didn’t know was how it was for them. Your analogy with a broken leg is good one. My partner has been suffering from depression for about 4 months, he’s been seeking help but it’ll take time. I’m doing my best to be supportive but it’s hard to not get upset at times. He’s moved back to his parents and has been terrible at keeping in contact, for all I know it’s not likely to be intentional, the rejection can be hard to take.

    Martin 30th May 2013 at 9:17 pm
  10. Also looking at it from the other side,the view from inside the dark tunnel..seeing your partner get more and more frustrated but not being able to get the words out to try and explain that its not that you are rejecting them,you just cant speak..seeing them become angry and it all spiralling into a vicious circle of misunderstanding,alienation and despair.Ive just been thrown out by my so called lover,and this was the main deciding factor.I salute all of you who have tried to support your loved ones

    steve 6th October 2013 at 5:31 pm
  11. Very well stated, thanks for taking the time to advise the community because many of us loving someone with depression need this!

    Anonymous 9th January 2014 at 7:06 am
  12. One of my friends is suffering from depression. This has not been “clinically” diagnosed but from carrying out my own research and based upon some of the comments my friend makes it is quite apparent that depression is crippling him. This illness seems to have bled into all aspects of his life, relationships, friendships, work, confidence, everything has been dramatically affected. Your article was definitely an eye opener and extremely helpful. I for one feel I need to problem solve, I sometimes find myself giving advice and it is as useful as trying to steer a car when the steering wheel is no longer attached. I realise this is the wrong approach but it is so frustrating to not be able to help. My mate was a man of few words before he developed this illness, so even being able to listen is so hard. Is there ever a right time to suggest the loved one seek counselling? Is this even useful? This sounds like an easy way out for us people supporting my friend but his behaviour is becoming, violent and very irrational and when he does attempt to speak his mind, his own inability to project his thoughts appears to infuriate him. We really are deeply worried.

    Pete 4th February 2014 at 10:50 am
  13. Hi Pete

    Thanks for commenting on this article and sharing your concerns. Your friend can call the CALM helpline to talk about anything they want to, where trained staff can talk through their issues and offer action plans and signposting to support groups and places they can find help. Calls are confidential, anonymous and free from landlines, pay phones and most mobile networks (check out our Helpline page for more details). The helpline is open 5pm – midnight every day of the year.
    nationwide: 0800 585858
    London: 0808 802 5858

    Or if they are in London or Merseyside they can use our texting service:

    07537 404717
    Start first text if CALM1 for London or CALM2 for Merseyside.

    Supporting someone with depression can be very tough and confusing, but by providing them with a sympathetic ear and a safe space to talk should they want to and making it known that you are there for them is really important.

    rachelclare 4th February 2014 at 1:54 pm
  14. Many thanks for such an honest and open account. It really helps me understand a loved one and not rush in gung-ho but instead do what is right for them.

    John 2nd September 2014 at 8:46 pm
  15. Thank you

    Jen 2nd October 2014 at 9:07 pm
  16. How do I help my brother? He suffers massive bouts of depression & drinks heavily throughout these bouts – I guess that’s his way of dealing with it or blotting it out. He won’t seek help or talk to anyone, even when he comes out the other side.

    KateT 12th February 2015 at 11:17 am

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