“Chronically Unhappy” or Depressed? 5 Ways to Support Someone Who Is Down
I have seen a number of articles recently regarding habits of “chronically unhappy people”. The “habits” outlined in these articles are often things like viewing life as hard, not engaging with other people, seeing what’s wrong more than what’s right, worrying about the future, comparing oneself to others, and complaining. I would whole-heartedly agree that these could each be called a bad habit, but as a therapist I also see them as symptoms of depression, especially when taken as a whole.
With depression, a person often feels so bad about him- or herself that they can’t rise above the discomfort of the present moment to plan something different or better for the future. Depression often leaves a person unable to cope with even small problems so the larger ones seem completely insurmountable. And depression is not weakness or a sign of being weak-willed or lazy or any of the other negative traits that often get projected onto people who suffer this particular malady.
Depression is an illness. Like a cold or cancer or diabetes. In some cases it gets better on its own. In many cases it doesn’t get better without help or if it does then the person can cycle in and out of depression, sometimes for years or longer.
The thing I know for sure is that inventing new labels, like “chronically unhappy”, is not helpful. Labels like this are just a new twist on an old behavior – looking at people from the outside and not taking the time to try and understand that person’s inner experience.
Labels are a form of stigma, further separating the person, in this case the person with depression, from social supports. And that stigma then gets internalized in the person with the illness, potentially making them feel like they are just weak or making bad decisions. This often leads people further into depression.
It is hard to deny that it can be hard to be around someone who is depressed, especially when the depression is consistent and long-lived. We often don’t know what to say. We make suggestions that don’t help. Because the help we offer doesn’t seem to have an effect, we get frustrated and give up.
How to support someone who is feeling down is tricky, especially when the person has given up hope. The trick becomes preparing oneself for the situation. Here’s what you can do:
1. Talk about symptoms, not labels. How someone is feeling says a lot more about them than any category they might or might not fit. Diagnosing them as depressed is not as helpful as trying to understand what they are experiencing.
2. Be curious. Simply trying to understand someone’s inner experience can be powerful medicine. Someone suffering depression often feels like an outcast and that no one cares. Someone showing genuine interest in understanding their plight can spark hope – and sometimes a spark is all it takes for real change to start.
3. Don’t try to fix it. This important flip-side to being curious is where we often go wrong with trying to help. Offering suggestions and advice rarely works and often makes the person feel like saying, “You really believe I didn’t think of that already?” And if your best advice falls flat, their hopelessness can grow even deeper.
4. Self-care. Take care of yourself when trying to help someone with depression. It can be exhausting to be around someone who is so down so be sure to set limits for yourself. It’s okay to give only half an hour or an hour before moving on to your next task. Just let the person know this ahead of time. Then if you want to spend more time with them that’s fine. But stopping by and cutting a visit short can make the depressed person feel like she or he just scares people away. Also, set up your visits just before or after a workout or a walk so you can work off any negative feelings you might be having.
5. Offer to meet out somewhere. Offer to meet for coffee or a walk, somewhere other than the person’s home. This will not only help the person get out of any rut they might be in, but it will help you not have to sit in the rut with them. Besides, as much as depressed people often don’t want to be around others, social interaction is important for mental health. If you’re wondering where to meet, think sunshine, exercise, and groups of people – though probably not group activities.
You can’t fix someone’s depression just like you can’t fix any other illness someone might have. The thing to do is try to understand and take care of yourself in the process. If you don’t practice some kind of self-care, then you might be tempted to stop seeing them and losing that support can be devastating. So take care of yourself and keep up the good work!