When someone you know seems to be struggling, how should you handle it? If you’re like many people, you may hesitate to cross boundaries or get involved—especially given the stigma attached to depression and mental illness. But Graeme Cowan, author of Back from the Brink, says the worst thing you can do is say nothing.
“It is incredibly important that the distressed person in your life knows there is hope,” he says. “Your silence may suggest there is not. It may feel uncomfortable, but it is an act of love and friendship to ask, ‘Are you okay?’”
Break the ice. Be careful about how you approach this (very) touchy subject. It’s better to ease into the conversation, making it feel like a natural transition.
“In my own depression, I experienced black thoughts, pitiful energy levels, and a complete loss of confidence,” says Cowan. “My mind couldn’t grasp information, and I feared my intelligence was lost forever. If you suspect your loved one is suffering from depression, he’s very likely suffering similar symptoms that will make it difficult for him to articulate the way he feels. Breaking the ice and starting this important conversation is a great way to lend him the helping hand that could pull him out of his darkness.
Listen without judgment. It’s hard enough for many people, particularly men, to talk about their problems and emotions without feeling the weight of judgment.
“Seek to understand the full issue,” advises Cowan. “And be specific. You might ask, ‘What are the things that are causing you to lose sleep?’ ‘Why does that worry you so much?’ ‘What do you think can be done about it?’ ‘Have you considered asking someone else for help/advice?’ If he is struggling to come up with answers, then this might be the time to suggest strategies or someone else he could talk to. If he is able to provide answers, be careful how you respond. Never try to minimize what he’s feeling.”
Be sensitive. Some people find it hard to talk about emotions and feelings of doubt and inadequacy. Often, it is best to talk about behavior rather than threaten self-esteem.
“I remember my wife being totally perplexed and wondering why I had not discussed my absolute despair with her prior to making an attempt on my life,” Cowan recalls. “She had no idea how low I felt, because I kept it from her. I didn’t ask for help out of shame, fear, and feelings of hopelessness.”
Try multiple choice. Most people like choices, and when it comes to labelling an emotion, it’s no different. We are often more likely to discuss their thoughts and feelings when we don’t have to describe them.
Give hope. Emotional support and reassurance is the only way to approach such a delicate situation.
“You could say, ‘Remember how well you handled X? We couldn’t have gotten through that without you,’” suggests Cowan. “Or, ‘You are such an important part of our family. Without you, we wouldn’t be the same.’ You might also share stories of people who’ve also struggled with depression. When I was chronically depressed, I yearned for stories of people who had been through something similar and had come out on the other side. I longed for a glimpse of optimism that could come only from fellow travelers—people who had been where I was.”
Encourage action (but don’t overdo it). Many depressed people are so hopeless that they feel there isn’t a single thing out there that can help them feel better. Their depression has so skewed their outlook that they simply think there is nowhere to turn.
“In my research talking with people who’ve suffered from depression, I’ve found that their greatest regret is not seeking expert help or diagnosis earlier,” says Cowan. “This is where loved ones can play a vital role. Offer to make an appointment for them (and accompany them if they are willing). If they strongly resist going to the doctor, you could suggest they do an anonymous online depression test. For further guidance, you can visit www.ruokday.com, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org), the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (www.dbsalliance.org), Families for Depression Awareness (www.familyaware.org), and many other online resources. Remember that nothing will happen until someone makes a move.”
Follow up. Check in a few days later to see if he has scheduled an appointment. If he hasn’t, mention the idea again and gently remind him how important it is to take care of himself. If he has gone to the doctor for a check-up, encourage him to go ahead and schedule his next appointment so you can have it on the calendar.
Graeme Cowan is the author of Back from the Brink: True Stories and Practical Help for Overcoming Depression and Bipolar Disorder. He is also a speaker who helps people build their resilience, well-being, and performance. Despite spending most of his career as a senior executive in Sydney, Australia, with organizations like Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and A.T. Kearney, Graeme had struggled with depression for more than 20 years. Graeme reemerged with not just a best-selling Australian book series to his name but a new attitude toward the way individuals approach recovery.