How to Help a Friend Who’s Depressed
Don’t ignore a problem that can only get worse.
In the last few weeks, two horrifying suicides have made nationwide headlines: Marie Osmond’s son Michael Bryan jumped to his death in Los Angeles, and Growing Pains actor Andrew Koenig hanged himself in a park in Vancouver.
Sadly, though, their deaths were just two among an estimated 32,000 suicides annually, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control. Are all these deaths inevitable? Is there anything friends and family can do to prevent them?
The experts say yes, though a person’s friends and family will likely face a long, hard battle to deal with suicidal tendencies and the depression that leads to them. Andrew Koenig’s sister Danielle told People magazine that her brother, 41, had suffered from depression most of his life. And Michael Bryan, 18, had been in rehab as a teenager for substance abuse. Nancy Rappaport, M.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, points out that depression can lead to substance abuse.
Though we hear the term depression a lot, many people still think of it as “the blues” or a temporary mood that will lift once the current crisis (a divorce, a job layoff) is dealt with. But clinical, or major, depression is far more serious and persistent.
Symptoms include a sustained loss of interest in everyday activities; sleeping and eating too little or too much; an inability to concentrate; increasing social isolation; and constant feelings of hopelessness or worthlessness. (Rappaport says, for example, depressed people can see a “pattern of unending defeat” in, say, the failure to get a promotion. People who aren’t depressed will view the same event as a temporary setback.)
As severe as these behaviors are, though, they aren’t always glaringly obvious. “It doesn’t have to be a big change” from a person’s regular behavior, says Leslie Seppinni, a doctor of clinical psychology and a family and marriage therapist who practices in Beverly Hills. “It can just be a darker mood.” The better you know a person, the likelier you are to sense these differences.
And when you do, experts say, it’s time to talk. But take it slowly. Be prepared to listen more than you speak. “Ask open-ended questions,” Seppinni says, or phrase your question as a sentence: “I can see you’re having difficulty sleeping.” (Ideally, Seppinni says, a person should also go to a physician to see if hormones or medicine might be causing the bad feelings.)
If a person seems at a relatively mild stage of depression, don’t say bluntly, “I think you’re depressed.” Says Seppinni, “That can shut the person down completely.” You might also want to talk about your own experience (“When I’ve felt bad, some of the things that have worked for me are…”) and mention strategies like exercising or joining a support group. If your friend or relative doesn’t want to do anything like that, experts say, don’t push them. That will only alienate them, and may actually make them feel more of a failure.
Even worse is telling the person to “snap out of it”. Experts emphasize that depression is a medical condition with roots in genetics, physiology and environment. “It’s not a character weakness,” Rappaport says. Most of the time, depression requires treatment via medication, therapy or both.