Providing non-judgmental support and showing empathy makes a difference Post published by Jean Kim M.D. on Jul 27, 2015 in Culture Shrink
My recent blog post focused on what NOT to say to a depressed person; I presented common statements that people tell their friends and loved ones in an attempt to alleviate the depressed person’s discomfort, but moreso their own unease in the face of a difficult, heartwrenching situation. But unwittingly or not, statements that tend to put blame on a depressed person’s willpower or lack of motivation and negative mindframe often backfire and increase that person’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The statements sometimes come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the illness that is depression, the biopsychosocial condition that traps its victims in a circuitous broken-record mindset that creates vulnerable, despondent thinking patterns.
So how can well-meaning people provide support to someone with depression, aside from avoiding tendencies towards judgment; how can one head towards greater empathy and understanding and connect with someone who is suffering?
1. I’m here for you.
Just offering to be there for someone with depression is a huge boon to someone who often feels trapped in a cycle of self-loathing and in turn feels unworthy of reaching out to people around them. They often worry about being a burden or nuisance to others, since they have some keen awareness of how infectious their mood can be for others nearby. When you decide to let them know you will be there for them, regardless of their fears of judgment or wasting your time or making them uncomfortable, they can feel less alone and feel less social pressure. You don’t even have to necessarily say anything to them while with them. This can help put a crack in the cycle of negative self-worth and have them realize people still care regardless of a sad outward presentation.
2. What can I do to help?
Depressed people may not necessarily be in a state of mind to know or say what will help them, but just hearing the willingness and openness of someone to do so can help lift their spirits. Even if they say nothing needs to be done, they have heard you. They can sense that you care, and that can reassure them when caught in guilt-ridden thinking. And if they do ask for something, you’re in a great position to help out. Even just being there to listen to their worries can help.
3. I like XYZ about you.
Low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with depression, as it leads to feelings of being out of sync with everyone else, and feeling misunderstood. They often tend to beat themselves up with bad thoughts about themselves. Hearing positive reinforcement about themselves can help soften their self-berating tendencies and help reality-test their thoughts. The point is not to be treacly or fake with your praise; but to say honest reasons why you enjoy that person’s company or love them. Oftentimes their mood skews their perception of their lovability.
4. Yeah that is shi**y.
Some negative outlook during depression is not necessarily skewed or delusional. Some issues can be magnified or the person can become more sensitive to a bad event, but there is often valid reality to what is getting them down and real stressors happening. It’s important to acknowledge those concerns when brought up, so a person doesn’t feel they aren’t being heard and misunderstood/ignored and forced to be artificially happy. If they don’t feel alone in seeing a problem, they feel there is potential to move forward.
5. There are ways to get through this difficult time.
If you notice someone falling into a serious depression and not improving despite offering your finest support, the best thing you can do is to guide them to professional help. Taking that step can feel scary for most people, but if you are there to say it’s OK and accompany them in the process, that can make the difference between someone falling through the cracks or not. Feel free to reach out to mental health resources online or telephone hotlines as needed, to people you know who are mental health providers, or look up NAMI. Help people make appointments with therapists and/or help them consider adjunct medication carefully. Take someone to an emergency room if you are really worried about someone’s safety. Negotiating the fragmented mental health system can be tricky at times, so your advocacy can really matter to someone who can’t fight for themselves.
6. I’ve been through it too.
Coming from a place of mutual suffering can matter to someone who feels that no one understands them, or feels too ashamed to talk about their situation to anyone they know offhand. More and more stories are being shared in the media, in books and magazines about people of all walks of life who have gone through mental illness and have struggled to survive and improve. The more people talk about the reality of their conditions, the less misinformation will confuse the general public and help reduce ongoing feelings of stigma, loneliness, and social punishment. And the more people can see potential for recovery.
Overall, the goal with helping a loved one or friend with depression is to be caring and supportive, but also realistic and open to their state of mind. Each individual case of depression can be much more complex than I’ve outlined here, especially if complicated personality traits or problematic behaviors or substance abuse issues are mixed into the equation. But in general, the principle holds—to accept a depressed person without expectations of quick change or judgment, and to let them know they are loved and not alone in the struggle they face. Your caring can make a real difference.