How To Help Someone Experiencing Depression For The First Time

A strong support system can be key to treatment and recovery. Here's how to get it right.

Depression is one of the most common mental health issues. An estimated 5% of adults live with depression worldwide, and one in six adults in the US are impacted by depression at some point in their lifetime. Additionally, the Covid-19 pandemic has led to an influx of people self-reporting symptoms of clinical depression and anxiety.

Though depression can impact children and adults at any age, the average age of onset for major depression is the mid-20s. Depressive episodes can occur suddenly, which may be overwhelming, confusing and even daunting for someone who has never experienced mental health issues in the past.

Having a strong support system can be a key component to treatment and recovery. However, at times, family members, co-workers and friends are at a loss for how to help – even when they are well-intentioned.

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If you’re looking for concrete ways to better support a loved one experiencing depression for the first time, experts told HuffPost there are a few things you can do.

Learn about clinical depression

Desreen Dudley, a licensed clinical psychologist for the virtual care platform Teladoc, said that it’s valuable to take the first step and “get educated on clinical depression by seeking information about symptoms, causes and treatment” when you notice a loved one is struggling with mental health issues.

This includes understanding there is a marked difference between feeling sad and major depression.

Depression differs from sadness in that it is a clinical mental health disorder that describes a cluster of signs and symptoms which significantly impact the way people see themselves, relate to others and their environments,” explained Meghan Watson, a resident therapist at Alkeme Health, a digital destination for the Black community to access mental health and wellness content.

Sadness is just one sign of clinical depression. Common symptoms of depression also include fatigue, feelings of hopelessness, changes in sleep patterns or appetite, suicidal thoughts, a lack of interest in activities and even physical pain, like headaches. Watson said that depressive episodes can vary from individual to individual based on their “history, habits and environment.”

Active listening is key to helping someone when they're having a hard time with their mental health.
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Active listening is key to helping someone when they're having a hard time with their mental health.

Listen to their experience and be considerate with your words

In addition to studying up on clinical depression, simply lending an ear may help ease the feelings of loneliness that often accompany mental health issues.

“You don’t need to be a trained professional to be a good listener,” Dudley said, noting that it’s important not to dole out advice or offer solutions.

“Supporting people with depression is more powerful when you can sit with your own discomfort, validate them and show them that their feelings are not inconvenient for you when you’re supporting them,” Watson said. By listening in this non-judgmental way, you cultivate a space where your family member or friend can safely talk about unfamiliar emotions and mental health.

Conversations about mental health and depression can be difficult. It’s completely normal to not know how to perfectly respond or what to say when someone is going through their first depressive episode – especially if this is a new experience for you, too. However, experts note that reciting platitudes such as “you are just going through a phase” or “just be positive,” tend to be more hurtful than helpful.

“These phrases were harmful because they delegitimised what I was thinking and feeling,” Douglas Hulst, a peer support specialist with the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, said of his first experience with a depressive episode.

“What would have been even more supportive and reassuring to hear was that what I was experiencing was common,” Hulst said. “The most important thing is to reassure [people experiencing depression] that they are not alone, while at the same time acknowledging the uniqueness of their specific experience.”

Hulst also explained that you can convey your support for someone with depression by checking in and saying something as simple as, “I want you to know I am here to listen, or help find you support and resources if you choose. I support you no matter what.”

Offer support by planning activities or being physically present

If you notice a friend or family member in a depressive episode begins isolating more than usual, Dudley said to “include them in planned activities.” Depending on their unique needs, this may look like going for a walk together or grabbing coffee once a week.

At times, doing the bare minimum when in a depressive episode can feel like too much; depression is emotionally and physically exhausting on every level. Managing new symptoms like poor sleep and navigating mental health care for the first time – on top of fulfilling daily responsibilities – can take a toll on physical health. Watson explained that “offering tangible support” to a loved one by making meals or doing household chores can lessen this burden.

Care tasks are difficult to do in the middle of a depressive episode, so being more concrete in your support for your loved ones can be a meaningful way to connect with them even if they don’t want to talk, or you’re not sure what to say,” Watson said.

Even simple distractions, like taking a walk, can mitigate depression symptoms for a period of time.
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Even simple distractions, like taking a walk, can mitigate depression symptoms for a period of time.

Be realistic about how you can help

What’s more, experts agree that engaging in your own self-care is necessary to keep from overextending yourself. This allows you to be more present for your family member or friend in the long run.

“Be clear about your boundaries around where you can and can’t help,” Watson said. “Be honest and communicate to them that although you may not know what to do in a situation, you’re open to listen and learn.”

There are many ways to show up for someone experiencing their first depressive episode, but this is no replacement for medical care. While you shouldn’t pressure them, encourage your loved one to seek out a mental health professional. Moreover, you can even research these resources and treatment options with them.

Start practising all these skills now

Given the statistics, it’s safe to say most people will know someone with clinical depression in their lifetime – or they themselves may experience a depressive episode.

Luckily, you can prepare to support a loved one with depression long before they are diagnosed with this health issue: Simply take time to learn about depression. Have conversations surrounding mental health and stigma. Check in about your mental health when gathering with friends, and practice active listening.

Each individual’s support system may look unique, but these are some universal skills to adopt.

“Depression affects millions of people in the U.S. alone,” Hulst said. “This is not something to be ashamed of or embarrassed of. It’s part of the human experience.”