The Art of Compassion: How to Care for Someone With Depression

I’m going to take a break from the school assignments and the documentation of the publishing process in order to write something that will be infinitely more important than either of those.

I’m going to talk about depression.

If you had a knee-jerk reaction of feeling uncomfortable, good–you probably should. Depression isn’t supposed to be a feel good topic. I want you to hold onto that discomfort. Sit with it. Let it fill you up. As a human being, depression is something you’ll encounter in your life, either in yourself or in someone you care about. Yes, it’s unsettling, but by holding that nervous energy now, maybe you can learn how better to make it more comfortable.

I’ve struggled with depression ever since middle school. It’s something that lives inside of me, and to a great extent, it will never truly leave me. I have bad days. Sometimes I have bad days that bleed into dark weeks and endlessly frustrating months. For those who know me, this can undoubtedly be uncomfortable. No one is taught how to deal with depression just as no one is taught how to deal with someone who is depressed. I’m hoping to offer insight into what’s helpful–and hurtful–when caring for someone with depression.

Being depressed is not a matter of perception or a state of mind. I want that to be completely clear. It’s very frustrating for a depressed person to hear the advice “just cheer up” or “stay positive.” If it were that easy, depression wouldn’t exist–no one would¬†choose¬†to be depressed. Throwing optimism at someone who is depressed is like asking a colorblind person to appreciate a double rainbow–it just ends up being more painful than positive. It comes from a place of well-meaning, but in the end, it just makes the depressed person hate themselves for not being able to do what you’re asking them to do.

Don’t ask a depressed person to smile. It’s exhausting. Today, after a particularly difficult day, I passed someone I knew in the hall after class. She said, “Are you smiling?”

I very clearly wasn’t, but I still answered with a “no.”

“Well then pretend.”

No. No, no, no. Please, do not ever tell a depressed person to “pretend.” People who struggle with depression spend a great deal of their lives pretending, sometimes hoping that pretending can end up tricking their minds into behaving. It doesn’t work. They feel as though the whole world is in on some great joke that they’re not a part of, so they force a laugh in order to feel included. So when someone around you is actually showing that they’re not okay, the worst thing you can do is dismiss that or ask them to cover it up.

Don’t assume that a depressed person needs space. Sometimes they do, but sometimes they feel so horribly lonely and abandoned on their little island of depression that they need human interaction. If you’re in doubt, ask. All a depressed person wants is to know that someone cares about what they’re going through. They don’t need advice; they know there’s no advice you can give them that they haven’t already tried themselves. They need compassion–someone to care enough to not only acknowledge their feelings but to offer to help them carry those feelings in some small way. This is hard for someone on the outside, I know, especially since we want to help those who are suffering but feel helpless in knowing how to do so. Ask. Offer to be a presence. Often, that’s all a depressed person needs.

Don’t say you were worried about them after the fact. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say, “I was really worried about you last week.” This always comes after I’ve come out of a depression spell and therefore is no longer helpful. I always want to ask, “Where was this concern when I was struggling–when I felt like I was all alone?” If you’re worried about someone, tell them. Worrying is a sign that you care, and that care can save a life.

Don’t ask why they’re upset. The worst part about depression is that it often doesn’t have any rhyme or reason; one day, you feel like you’re on top of the world, and the next, you feel like you’re buried under it. This is difficult for a depressed person to reconcile–the idea that there’s no external reason–so it’s taxing for them to try to explain something they themselves don’t fully understand. Instead of asking why they’re feeling, ask them what they’re feeling and how you can help.

Let people cry. I’m the worst at this because crying is such an intense display of emotion and can so easily make one uncomfortable. Yeah, it’s really awkward to be around someone who’s crying, but imagine how they feel. It’s not easy to cry in front of another person, so if someone goes to pieces around you, chances are they need some TLC. Don’t say something like, “Don’t cry. It’ll be okay.” Telling them not to cry is almost like telling them not to feel what they’re feeling, which is impossible. Let them be. If you don’t know what to say, don’t say anything. Wait for them to take the lead. If you’re close to them, hug them or put a hand on their shoulder–anything to show that you’re still there and that you accept them even at their worst.

Remind them of their good qualities. Depression has a way of making you feel like a total piece of shit. You feel broken, rejected, and defected. It goes a long way when someone reminds you of your worth. Depression makes a lot of things seem meaningless, so when someone goes out of their way to remind a depressed person that they have had a positive influence on someone else, it puts things in a different, better perspective. Remind them that they have a place in your life. Tell them about a time you were really glad to know them. The cloud of depression may have obscured these memories, and being reminded often helps to clear the haze.

Some of these things seem so small, yet they have a huge impact. You will never be able to cure someone’s depression, but you absolutely have the power to make things easier on those who are prone to these lows. It may never feel like you’re doing enough, but I promise you, if you make the effort to care, you’ll be doing more than you can imagine.

If you suspect that someone you know is considering suicide, please call 911 or consult the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255.