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5 Ways You Can Help Someone in a Depressive Episode

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Fact #1: Depression is not a state of mind; it is a disease, an illness that can leave you gutted raw, a poison that leaves you desolate and fragile.

Fact #2: Depression is not something that is cured, but controlled. And it can be hard to control.

I deal with depression on a daily basis, so I know firsthand how difficult it can be to function like a “normal” human being when in the midst of an episode. I define an “episode” as any time depression seeps into my mind and spreads its darkness through me until I’m hollow. Episodes don’t necessarily need triggers, but they often start because of them. During an episode, completing rudimentary tasks like eating, showering and getting out of bed often become laborious and close to impossible. When I’m deep in the shadows of my episodes, I only have enough strength to breathe. I become more dependent on those around me, and this dependence is crucial to my well-being.

Unfortunately, I don’t always feel validated when I reach out for help, and disclosing what I’m going through doesn’t always mean I’ll be taken seriously. I’ve always wondered, is it because people don’t actually care about me or my well-being? But then I thought, well maybe it’s because not enough people understand depression, and maybe most people don’t know what to do to help when someone they know is having an episode. So after reflecting on personal experiences and talking to some friends who also struggle with depression, I’ve come up with five things people can try that may help someone through (or at least ameliorate) a depressive episode:

1. Listen

You’d be surprised how much you can learn about someone if you take the time to listen genuinely, wholeheartedly, selflessly and silently. Likewise, people with depression may want to share with you a piece of that darkness, if they know you’re willing to listen. This could be verbally, through a poem, a song, or any method of communication. I like to write it all down on paper since depression mutes my ability to dictate what it is I’m going through, or even what I need.

2. Ask Trickle-Down Questions

On the other hand, sometimes speaking a lot can help. You can usually accurately gauge what someone needs by starting off with generalized yes-or-no questions. These questions range anywhere from “Did you eat today?” to “Do you feel safe?” And depending how those questions are answered, go from there into more specific questions requiring more substance, like “When’s the last time you ate today?” My boyfriend is learning to do this when I’m having an episode; if he figures out I have eaten nothing but a granola bar in over 12 hours, he’s able to decipher my immediate need is food and get me something to eat.

3. Be There (Physically and Emotionally)

Sometimes, just knowing someone is choosing to be by me during the episode will help me feel better. Physical contact like hugging, back-rubbing or hand-holding are examples of physical ways in which you can show support. Emotional support revolves around saying things like, “I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere,” “You are one of the most resilient people I know and I admire you so much for that,” or even sitting next to them in silence. All these things may help buffer the effects of depression during an episode.

4. Show Them You Really Care

Actions really can speak louder than words, especially if they are genuine. It’s relatively easy to show someone you care, since small actions speak great volumes. Examples? Go out of your way to stop by their work or to buy them a coffee. Check up on them by texting to make sure they’re all right. Write them a letter reminding them how awesome they are.

5. Take an Active Role of Distraction

During the middle of my depressive season, I went to a counselor. The mindfulness techniques given to me were not helpful during my depressive episodes, mainly because they required me to be inside my own head, exactly where the depression is. When I felt like I was drowning, taking deep breaths or thinking of a safe place only exacerbated my depression. Of course, mindfulness techniques definitely help a lot of people, but for me they were not effective enough, which is why my next solution is to take an active role in distracting them from their own thoughts. How can this be accomplished? Let your creativity flow. Everything (well, almost everything) is in the realm of possibility: Go on a walk, go get ice cream, tell them a story, watch something they enjoy on Netflix, road-trip to a scenic lookout, send funny pictures on Snapchat, bake them muffins, color, ride a bike, play guitar for them, take them shopping at the dollar store… Anything you can think of that may release their mind from the grasping tendrils of depression.

There are so many other ways to help an individual who is going through a depressive episode. Sometimes you’ll discover these by trial and error. Sometimes you’ll be talking with friends or co-workers and they’ll share what has worked for them. I’ll be honest with you: There is no one-solution-solves-every-episode. It may depend on the severity of the episode, on the individual, or even the environment that person is in. It often takes more than just a little effort to make sure someone with depression can get on their feet again. I know my boyfriend sometimes feels weary and frustrated when he’s tried several solutions to get me out of an episode and I remain broken. I know it’s not easy. But please, don’t give up on us. Your dedication, your compassion, your persistence may ultimately save someone’s life.

Image via Thinkstock.

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Originally published: October 12, 2016
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