Don’t tell a depressed person to cheer up! Tips for family and friends.

I’m depressed.  I wasn’t two years ago, which is why the anti-depressants didn’t work then.  I was merely sad.  There is a difference.  Sadness can affect your brain, of course; recent research on rejection has shown the same brain areas affected as having a hot needle jabbed into your arm.  Sadness affects most people at some point.  Sadness can make you weep and wail; regret, accompanying it, can make you feel frustrated and angry.  There’s usually an obvious reason for sadness, and sadness is usually temporary and fairly easily fixed.  If you’re sad, you know there’s light at the end of the tunnel.   If you’re depressed, that light fades.

My depression was brought on by a certain situation (rejection).  I couldn’t talk it through properly at the time with the other party, so I couldn’t express how I felt to the right target, so to speak, and I couldn’t come up with any answers by myself – or through third parties.  Bewildered and hurt, all the horrid, negative things said at the break-up ploughed themselves into my head, sowing fertile seeds of sadness which became rooted and grew into depression.  I’ve felt overwhelmed, hurt, angry, sad, thwarted, inferior, unfairly treated before, but this is different.  I feel small.  I can’t get out of my head except in the company of several other people – but that’s only a temporary panacea.  I have less energy than my usual bounce.  I wake up wanting to be dead.  I can’t sleep properly.  I feel empty.  I can’t stop thinking about what’s happened – it’s almost (other people might leave out the ‘almost’) obsessive. I feel desperately lonely – even though I’ve got a loving family and loads of caring friends: I can’t phone them at 2am when the night fantods attack; I can’t burden them; I’m horrible to be with, so I won’t foist myself on them.  I’ve nearly thrown myself into the Thames twice and hanged myself thrice – luckily, the warning of transference of pain onto undeserving, loving people is strong enough to stop me.  I’m not a clinical depressive, nor am I bi-polar; there is nothing congenital or neurological.  This is circumstantial depression (I’m not sure it’s called that, but I can’t think of a better term).

It is upsetting for my family and dearest friends.  I’ve shouted at them, thrown things, wailed, repeated myself over and over and over again.  It’s boring, unpleasant, saddening, maddening, and they feel helpless.  Actually, of course, they’ve helped a lot.  Below are some suggestions of what to do – and what not to do – when someone you care about is depressed.

  • Don’t tell them to ‘cheer up’.  It’s not possible.  It really isn’t.  Thinking cheerful thoughts just doesn’t work.
  • In fact, don’t ‘tell’ them anything.  Suggest, ask, gently advise.  DO NOT EVER shout at a depressed person, even if they’re being pig-headedly woefully absurd and even if you’re feeling frustrated because of helplessness and worried love.  Do not tell them that you’ve heard it all before.  Do not tell them that they’re not the only one who’s felt like that.  Do not remind them that their friends and family are worried and are being put through the wringer.  The depressed person knows that; being reminded will just make them feel WORSE.  This may be difficult for you, but it’s hell for them.
  • Listen. Even when you’ve heard it before and before and before.
  • Do advise them to go to the doctor.  Anti-depressants are worth a try.  However, they are not guaranteed to work; there’s no test for serotonin levels, so SSRIs will be hit-and-miss (dopamine and monoamines are also vital for mental health).  In any case, they’ll take a couple of months to kick in.
  • Do suggest counselling.  Again, not guaranteed to work – they need the right counsellor.  And if it’s relationship stuff, joint counselling with the ex may be an option.
  • Hug them as much as they need or you feel like!  Warm, gentle physical contact is so important.  My dogs and cat offer some of the best support.  If I’m in tears, the dogs will lick my face and try to comfort me.  Even my cat (who, it must be admitted, thinks she’s a dog) comes for a cuddle.  Children are also good at hugging; because they are as emotionally honest as animals, they are balm to a depressed mind (in my own experience, anyway).
  • Do take them out for a bit of exercise, or see that they take a bit themselves.  Endorphins always help.
  • Phone them.  Even if it’s tedious and you don’t like phones.  It’s lovely to feel wanted, especially if rejection’s at the root of it all.  Being made to feel wanted/ needed is a great thing.  When you feel really lonely, you know that phoning someone is a good solution, but you’re generally feeling so dire that you don’t want to burden whomever etc etc etc.  If a friend or relly phones, it’s warming.
  • Remember that depression will exacerbate a lot of feelings.  If you’ve had a long relationship with the person (e.g. you’re a parent), there will be baggage which normally would not matter, but might now.  There might be old gripes which were never really cleared up; and as for those little gripes we all have with each other (about mundanities like the washing-up), these become unbearable when you’re depressed.  Be prepared to talk about these.  Talking really helps, but only when it’s calm.
  • Do make sure they are eating properly.  The jury’s out on what foods are good for depression, but a good, balanced, regular diet is a start.
  • Do make sure they get outside in the sunshine.  Sunlight really helps.  I’ve noticed how acutely I now feel a grey day:  whereas before it was merely a slight disappointment. it’s now a mood-swinger.
  • Do make sure that they are sleeping properly.  Sleep is the body’s first medicine, and without enough of it, everything slides down.  Sleeping pills may be advisable, although a GP will try to make sure that there is no danger of overdosing.
  • Temperature is often ignored, but, perhaps as a result of low energy levels, a depressed person (in my own experience, anyway) can get cold easily, and a drop in body temperature results in a drop in mood.
  • Breathing and meditative exercises are useful; sit with them and concentrate on breathing in and out, and trying to empty the mind of everything.  They are unlikely to be able to do it alone, as that takes too much self-motivation.
  • Don’t expect a depressed person to make decisions.  It’s all a bit overwhelming.
  • Don’t be surprised if some tiny little annoyance, like a dog chewing a mobile phone, causes a massive tantrum.  Depression reduces one to the frustration levels of a toddler.
  • Do remind them that they’re doing well, and that to get through x, y, z was really good.
  • Under NO circumstance tell them to ‘move on’.  The future is too horrible when you’re depressed, especially if you’ve come from a past you rather liked.  Instead, help them live in the present.

Some good advice is here:  eHow; depression alliance

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