We naturally want to help a loved one who isn’t feeling well. How we can or should help may seem fairly obvious when a loved one experiences a physical health problem, but many people say they’re not sure how to best help when a loved one experiences a mental illness like depression. Here are some tips:
You don’t have to understand exactly what someone else is experiencing, you just need to recognize that it’s a difficult experience. You can try something like, “I can see that this experience or these symptoms are really painful for you,” or, “I’m sorry to hear that you’re feeling unwell.” If you have experienced depression yourself, you might say, “I know how you feel.” Just remember that everyone experiences illnesses like depression differently, and empathy is about recognizing the impact of the illness, not comparing symptoms.
You don’t have to be an expert, but learning more about depression can help you understand what’s going on (and maybe dispel some of the unhelpful myths around depression). Our Depression info sheet is a great place to start, and we have a list of resources at Q&A: Where can I learn more about depression?
Sometimes talking about problems or concerns can really help—in fact, many people who experience a mood disorder say that they just want to be heard. It’s important to understand that talking about something difficult like experiences of depression can be very hard for your loved one. You cannot force them to talk about it, but you can invite them to, and create safe and quiet spaces to talk. If a loved one opens up to you, listen actively—that is, without distractions like your phone or the TV. Really pay attention to what they have to say. Listen with empathy and without judgement. Even if you don’t understand the problem or see the problem in a different way, your main concern is the distress or difficult feelings your loved one is experiencing. You can find in-depth tips on listening and communicating well in Module Three of the Family Toolkit. Some people are not ready to talk about everything at once, or at all. That’s okay! Respect your loved one’s boundaries and let them tell you what they’re ready to talk about.
Don’t offer advice unless you are asked for it
Even when you have the best intentions, unsolicited advice can be unhelpful. You likely can’t fix the problem, and you may not know the whole story. If you’d like to share what worked for you in a similar situation, you can ask if the other person would like to talk about strategies that worked for you.
Ask how you can help
Different people need different things—don’t assume you know what’s best! Some people need emotional help, like someone they can talk with. Other people may have a good relationship with a counsellor or other professional, but they might need practical help, like help around the house or help sticking to their treatment plan. And others may simply want to be included in some social events. By asking what a person needs, you may also be less tempted to give advice.
Don’t take it personally
When people experience an episode of depression, they can have a lot of very negative thoughts and feelings. This can take a real toll on others. It’s a good idea to seek support for yourself—there are support groups just for family members and friends. The BC Schizophrenia Society has a directory of family support groups around BC for any mental illness.
Help them with other options
If your loved one isn’t happy with their treatment or would like to try a different option, you can also help them seek different resources or services. You can find general advice in the Ask Us section of HeretoHelp. To find local services, call the BC Mental Health Support Line at 310-6789 (no area code) or email us.
Encourage your loved one to keep up with their treatment and recovery plan
This is very important! You are not responsible for your loved one’s treatment (unless your loved one is your child under 19)—but you can support them as they work towards recovery. In most cases, your loved one’s treatment and recovery plans are their choice—you are there to offer support and encouragement.
In order for any treatment to work, your loved one needs to be actively involved. Forcing or threatening treatment generally doesn’t work and will only hurt everyone involved. In most cases, anyone 19 years of age and older is free to make their own choices. And their choices may include refusing treatment or choosing a treatment you disagree with. It’s important to be respectful and keep honest communication open between you. You can learn more about dealing with this situation in Ask Us: An adult in my life seems ill and won’t find help. What can I do?
Take action if you think your loved one is in danger
If your loved one says that they have thoughts of ending their life, it’s important to take action. Call 1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) at any time or message online at www.crisiscentrechat.ca between noon and 1am. If you think your loved one is in immediate danger, you can always call 911 or go to a hospital emergency room.
Where can I learn more?
- Family resources from the Mood Disorders Association of BC
- Helping a Friend You're Worried About info sheet
- Supporting a Friend or Family Member with a Mental Illness info sheet
- The Family Toolkit workbook—it has good information for anyone who is supporting someone they care about
- Family Self-Care and Recovery from Mental Illness workbook
- Preventing Relapse of Depression info sheet
About the author
The Canadian Mental Health Association promotes the mental health of all and supports the resilience and recovery of people experiencing a mental illness through public education, community-based research, advocacy, and direct services. Visit www.cmha.bc.ca.
Q&A is for readers who want to take charge of their well-being, support a friend or loved one, find good help, or just learn more about mental health and substance use. Here, the information and resource experts at HeretoHelp will answer the questions that we’re asked most often. We'll offer tips and information, and we'll connect you with help in BC, Canada. If you have a question you’d like to ask, email us at [email protected], tweet @heretohelpbc, or log in to HeretoHelp and post a comment on this page.