How to Help a Family Member Cope with Depression: A Mother’s Story

Editor’s Note: I have shared my story, but there are so many important stories out there to tell. It can be difficult to watch a family member battle with depression, so I interviewed one of my dear friends whose teenaged son struggles with depression. Here are some tips that help them:

There is this lonely, dark place called depression. When you watch a family member struggle with it, it feels like they’re on a small raft floating helplessly in the open ocean. All you want to do is help them to get better – to find a way to help them navigate back to who they really are by throwing them a life-preserver. But there is no easy answer and no easy way. It’s so incredibly confusing, painful, and frustrating to want to help and not knowing what to do. In my own journey, I have discovered some helpful ways to help my son.

Helping family members cope with depression is a natural part of the healing process.

Don’t Take Depression Personally

This has been one of the hardest things for me to understand and put into practice. Depression is incredibly selfish, so when my son couldn’t clean up his messes, do his work, or even carry on a conversation that wasn’t all about him, I felt rejected and unloved by him. But the Mayo Clinic states that, “For many people with depression, symptoms usually are severe enough to cause noticeable problems in day-to-day activities, such as work, school, social activities or relationships with others. Some people may feel generally miserable or unhappy without really knowing why.”  I realized that he can’t always do what others expect him to do. Some depressed people lose their sense of responsibility and can’t contribute their part to the family. At first I felt like a failure because I couldn’t help him feel better through my pep talks, and then I felt mad because I thought he didn’t care about our family. But then I started telling myself that he was sick and it was not my fault. I decided I would do what it took - and wait however long it took - to help him get better: it was about him and not me.

Learning to “Read” Them the Best You Can

There are days when a person suffering from depression needs space. Then on other days they need you to talk them through their feelings for hours. Simply asking them what they need during those dark times is the best way to really know how to help. They don’t always know what they want or need, but if you at least ask, they know you are there with unconditional love. After they answer (if they are able), then pretty much do what they say. (Now I said “pretty much” because body language tells you as much as words, but learning when to push and when to give space is helpful.) We use a scale in our house now to figure out how bad things are now with “1” being that everything is fine and his feelings are under control, and a “9” or above means it’s time to go to the hospital. I will text my son and ask for a number just to see how he’s doing. This has been effective for us to not have to use too many words or explanations, but then we all know where he is emotionally and he feels better that we are aware of where he is on the scale.

Have a Plan and Help Ready

What if my son hits a nine or ten on his scale? We have phone numbers of his doctor, the emergency room, and a plan in place just in case we need it in the worst scenario. We also have plans in place that we made together on the days that are a six or seven: what makes him feel better? (Some examples are watching a favorite show, going for a walk together, or any other distraction that might help.) We made these plans on days when he felt better so they were ready when we needed them. We also belong to a support group that has been very positive. It was hard to go at first, but we quickly learned that we are not alone on this journey and that we could relate with other people.  Having a good, positive group is important so that you have the support you need. Do your research and make sure that they offer sound mental health principles, that it’s not just a an environment to voice complaints, and confirm that you are growing towards a specific goal. I never give up hope that one day my son will be able to have freedom (or even control over) depression, but until then we will appreciate the good days and conquer the hard days together.  

Depression (major depressive disorder)”. Mayo Clinic. Accessed June 18, 2018.
“6 Ways to Support a Spouse Living With Depression”.  Huffington Post. Accessed June 18, 2018.
“4 Ways to Reach Out When Depressed”.  Psychology Today. Accessed June 18, 2018.
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