When you find out that someone close to you has depression or anxiety, or when you suspect that they might, it’s completely natural to feel worried and overwhelmed. Although we’ve all heard of these mental health conditions, many of us don’t know much about them until we’re confronted with them in our personal lives.
The first thing to do is to take a deep breath and accept that the person you love is hurting.
The worst thing you can do for someone with a mental illness is to make them feel judged, or put pressure on them to feel better. Make a commitment to be patient with them and listen as much as they want you to. And let them know that you’re here to help.
Right from the start, tell them that it doesn’t matter if they don’t know what to say, or if they don’t know what they need. Give them the space to be quiet if they don’t want to talk, and let them know that you’re ready to simply sit with them and acknowledge their experience.
For someone who feels isolated and judged because of a struggle that they can’t fully explain, validating their experience by simply saying “this must be really hard, and I don’t have any answers, but I am here for you,” can be incredibly powerful.
Remember that they might not feel able, at present, to express gratitude or even acknowledge your efforts to help. Sometimes, depression and anxiety cause people to lash out at those closest to them. If this happens, try to remain patient and understanding, and not take it personally. Don’t allow yourself to be hurt, and respect your own boundaries too; but reassure them that you will be there for them when they’re ready.
Here are some of the most important things to do when you’re trying to help someone with anxiety or depression.
Learn About Their Condition
Although mental health awareness is better now than ever before, there is still a lot of stigma surrounding depression and anxiety. People who are uneducated about these conditions can easily say or do things to make things worse.
For example, you might—with the best of intentions—tell someone with anxiety that they should “stop worrying,” or “live in the moment,” without realizing that these throwaway suggestions are simply impossible for that person. What could seem like a harmless comment to a mentally well person could send someone with anxiety into a spiral of self-doubt and intense, overwhelming worry.
Or you might encourage someone with depression to “look on the bright side,” on “cheer up and get out there.” Again, these suggestions undermine and invalidate that person’s experience of mental illness. They are not simply in a bad mood; they are deep in a complex and painful experience of mental ill health.
Make sure you understand your loved one’s condition so that you can support them appropriately.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) states that anxiety is a real, serious health condition — just as real as a physical illness. Rather than being simply a little worried, a person with anxiety might experience:
- Overwhelming and persistent feelings of nervousness or irritability, or feeling constantly on edge
- A sense of impending danger, doom or panic
- An increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing, sweating, or trembling
- Weakness or persistent tiredness
- Difficulty concentrating
- Poor sleep
- Digestive issues
And someone with depression could experience
- Persistent sadness or emptiness
- Hopelessness or desperation
- Guilt, worthlessness, helplessness — they don’t know how to make things better
- Lack of interest in things they usually enjoy, including sex
- Low energy or extreme fatigue
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
- Poor sleep or chronic insomnia
- Weight gain or weight loss, related to appetite changes
- Thoughts about death or suicide
- Suicide attempts
- Physical symptoms caused by depression, such as headaches, digestive issues or pain
These mental illnesses can be truly debilitating. Take the time to learn about what your friend or relative might be going through, and let them know that you care. You don’t have to understand it all — and telling them that you don’t fully understand, but that you’ll be with them every step of the way, could help.
If appropriate, help them learn about their condition or accompany them to the doctor, to therapy, or to other support resources.
Look Out for Serious Warning Signs
(and know what to do if you notice them)
Sometimes, depression and anxiety become so severe that the person becomes a threat to themselves. This can happen gradually, or it can happen very quickly.
Know the signs that someone might be suicidal or self-harming. If you think your loved one might be suicidal, take them to the nearest ER or call a suicide hotline. Find more resources here.
If you think they may be self-harming, try to open up a conversation with them to find out more. Remember that they may be defensive or afraid of sharing with you, so make it clear that you are not judging them and want to help. Be honest; don’t try to trick them, but simply tell them what you’ve noticed and invite them to tell you about it. Encourage them to seek help from a physician or therapist, and offer to help by booking appointments or accompanying them.
These are important signs that someone may be suicidal:
- Suicide threats, even if the person doesn’t directly say they are suicidal. For example, “you’d be better off if I wasn’t here,” or “maybe I should just die.”
- Expressing a sense of complete hopelessness or helplessness
- Excessively risk-taking or unusually daring behavior
- Changes in personality
- Giving away loved possessions, or seeming to make plans for no longer being around
- Lack of interest in plans for the future
- Sudden happiness and calm after a struggle with depression—some people with depression feel very peaceful and happy after they’ve made the decision to end their life
According to Mental Health America, these are important signs that someone may be self-harming:
- Frequent injuries, such as cuts or burns, that the person cannot adequately explain
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty managing emotions (self-injury sometimes provides a sense of relief for overwhelming feelings)
- Avoiding relationships
Listen to Them
No case of depression or anxiety becomes better overnight. Even when a person begins to seek help and engage in self-help techniques, it takes time. The journey will rarely be straightforward—there will be ups and downs, and there will be days on which your loved one feels they will never be well again.
Whenever possible, avoid giving advice unless they have explicitly asked for it.
Practice listening instead. Set the intention of becoming a good listener. When they talk to you about their struggles, listen closely and don’t be distracted by trying to think of what to say.
Be present with them, offer physical closeness and affection if appropriate, and try to stay calm. Simple actions like going out for a walk or a coffee with them can be very helpful—because they may not admit it, but your loved one might be feeling very anxious or intimidated at the thought of leaving the house.
(and share them when appropriate)
Collect useful resources that help you to understand your friend or relative’s condition. If and when an appropriate moment arises, you can share those resources with them.
Read our guide on resources for people with depression and anxiety to discover books, websites, hotlines and treatment ideas that could help.
Maintain Your Own Self-Care
Finally, don’t forget yourself. Supporting someone with anxiety or depression, particularly if they are very close to you, is tough. It can be scary, exhausting, and frustrating; their journey to recovery may be long, and they’ll need you along the way.
You won’t be able to give them the support you need if you are not also caring for yourself.
Find someone to share your feelings with. At times, you might feel angry or resentful of your loved one. You might feel that they’re not doing enough to help themselves, or that they don’t even want to get better. All of these feelings are OK, and you’re not alone. Find a trusted friend, family member, or therapist who you can talk with confidentially. That way, you won’t end up taking your frustrations out on the person who’s already struggling.
Equally, care for your overall well-being. Use exercise, a healthy diet, meditation, Ayurvedic herbs, and other self-care practices to stay calm and steady amidst the storm. Try not to judge yourself for finding this difficult—remember that you are a human, not a rock; you cannot be solid all the time.
With time, love and support, your loved one can feel well again. Maintain hope even when they can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel, and you’ll be there to experience the joy of good mental health with them in the future.