If you are experiencing suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Counselors are available 24/7.
People who live with mental illnesses are often stereotyped, categorized by off-the-mark media portrayals, branded with ableist labels, or simply outcast altogether. But the fact is, one in five adults have a mental health condition. That equates to 300 million people around the world who struggle with mental health — people of all ages (teens being the most susceptible), races, religions, and genders are at risk. It’s definitely not rare. Actually, more people have some form of mental health disorder than not. It can happen to anyone.
And while there isn’t one definitive solution that helps everybody, taking action in some way can make all the difference in the world to loved ones who are suffering.
If someone you care about is struggling, here are small and manageable things you can do to help that person feel less alone. Take it from someone who’s been on both sides as the helper and the one in need — there is light just beyond the darkness. I promise.
1Take the time to educate yourself.
If you aren’t sure what to do first for this person, then do your research: Google is your friend. Stats are your comrades. Sites that offer tips on how to be there for a depressed person are everything. If you’ve never been personally affected by mental illness, then you might not know how difficult it makes it to verbalize your needs. My partner sometimes asks me, “What can I do to help?” when I’m in a funk — and honestly, that’s too big of a question when I’m in that state. It’s not my responsibility to educate when I’m not in the right mind to understand why it’s happening, myself.
So my advice? Equip yourself with as much information as possible. That way, you can lend support from the most empathetic, compassionate place possible. If you don’t know all the ways depression can present itself or what having a depressive disorder consists of, then how can you truly be sympathetic? Research until you know as much about the disorder as you can — this shows your loved one that you care enough to understand.
2Don’t stop talking. Don’t stop listening.
Even if you’ve done your due diligence and feel ready to talk to your loved one, it can be a difficult subject to approach; you don’t want to seem critical, apathetic, or ignorant. Ask questions (the right kinds of questions, such as “How do you hurt?” or “Are you thinking about suicide?“). Then, listen to the answers. Respond by focusing on all the reasons their life is worth living (and do so without judgement). Studies show that talking about suicide doesn’t increase suicidal thoughts; it actually has the opposite effect. More importantly, don’t offer unsolicited advice. This isn’t about you — it’s about how to help your loved one come up for air when they’ve been anchored to the bottom of the ocean. When I’ve been at my most desolate headspace, my partner’s relentless quest to help me open up is what brings me closer to fixing what’s wrong. And we fix it together.
3Do something small to show your support.
Whether you’re giving a thoughtful card, offering to help with tasks, or taking time out of your busy schedule to drive a loved one to therapy (super important!), these small gestures are huge to someone who feels overlooked, lonely, or isolated from the world. When I went through my darkest depressions, my friends helped me find the right therapist, and that meant so much to me. Others drove me to my appointments. None of them suddenly disappeared once the suicidal thoughts subsided, as though I was permanently cured. Depression is a long, turbulent road to recovery. The small things matter. Do them.
4Encourage them to find numerous support systems.
Depression changes the way you think, feel, and act. When in this state of mind, the outside world doesn’t always make sense. I’ve felt abandoned, isolated, and alone — even when surrounded by those who love me. Depression affects the way your brain works, altering reality completely. Validate your loved ones’ feelings, and help them find someplace where support is offered. Yes, traditional talk therapy, cognitive therapy, or alternative therapy are great steps — but sometimes, too big of a first step. Celebrate small victories.
There was a time when I couldn’t even leave my house. I’d become a hermit, hiding from any and everything that might see me. It took encouragement from others while I started over — practicing getting dressed, sitting on my porch, etc. — for me to move past those defenses. Encourage the people you love to reach out, even if it’s not to you. Tell them about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number (listed at the top and bottom of this article) where they can call or text, anytime. No matter what they’re feeling, make sure they know there will be someone to listen. Always.
5Throw on a comedy.
I don’t always feel like laughing when I’m depressed. If anything, I might resent the person for trying to make light of my pain. But anytime my partner attempts to make me laugh — by telling a dumb joke, tickling me, or throwing on that one movie that always makes me happy — my brain switches gears (however slightly). No, it doesn’t fix everything, but for that moment, I remember joy. I’m not dwelling. It helps.
6Provide them with a list of their strengths.
Literally write down everything your loved one is good at. Then pin that list on their wall, refrigerator, or wherever they’ll see it on a daily basis. Providing this positive visual in addition to an empathetic ear might not erase their depression completely, but it will trigger a new perspective (at least temporarily). When I’m depressed, that little voice in my head repeats all the things I’m terrible at, reminding me of every failure, every regret, every heartache. Depression is dramatic; it lies its way into my thoughts until I believe those lies are truths. I forget I’m good at anything. When you remind someone like me of all the things I have to offer the world, I may not believe you at first. But if I practice reading and accepting the words on that list, I might believe you eventually. Self-love is an important step in combatting this illness.
7Help with small tasks.
I have two children. When I’m in a depressive state, I can barely get out of bed — let alone care for them the way they deserve. It’s difficult to navigate — and knowing I’m letting them down only adds to my depression, increasing the thoughts that say “they’re better off without you.” If you know someone going through depression, offer to watch their kids. Run their errands. Bring over dinner. It doesn’t matter what it is — anything to lessen their load so they can focus on self-care.
8Check in often.
It doesn’t matter if you were at their apartment yesterday or talked on the phone last week. For someone going through a depression, life is lonely. We’re in our heads all the time. Even if you live a thousand miles away, just text them. Ask how they’re doing. Send an email or a card in the mail. Let them know you’re still thinking about them a day later, a week later, a year later. Depression is a lifelong battle. Remind us we’re not alone. Ever.
When I’m in a depressive state, I do everything possible to isolate myself — and yet, I don’t want to be alone. It’s a cruel mind trick that only feeds the mental illness. I’m subconsciously testing people, seeing who will stick it out and who will leave me. Don’t prove that negative inner voice right. Be there for the person struggling, no matter what. Even if you feel that their issues are beyond your capabilities, be the one who helps connect them with professionals, and follow-up. By no means are you expected to take on the responsibility of “saving” someone by yourself. Be the person they can count on before they get help, and after. In my experience, that’s the most important, critical thing you can do for someone going through depression.
Mental illness is completely and utterly exhausting.
If you take the time do do any number of these things for someone you care about, it could mean the difference between life and death.
If you or someone you care about is struggling, you can call Lifeline 24/7 (U.S. only) at 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone who can help. Despite what depression tells you, you are NOT alone.