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How (Not) to Treat to Your Depressed Loved One This Holiday Season

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The holidays can be stressful. For some, seasonal depression comes into play. For those who struggle with depression all year long, this can worsen around holidays. 2020 hasn’t been like any other year. People may be experiencing depression for the first time or their depression may be worsening. Whether you’re getting together through Zoom, social distancing outside or having a traditional holiday after self-quarantining and/or getting tested, these tips could help.

1. Don’t call their mood out, especially with a group of people around.

We tend to be very critical of ourselves and overanalyze situations and peoples’ responses to us when we’re depressed, so please don’t put someone in the spotlight, especially in a negative way. This can include comments about their lack of enthusiasm, expressions or even the way they sit or stand. It’s happened to me!

2. If you begin a sentence with, “Have you tried/you should try…” just stop!

Likely they’ve heard of anything you’re about to say, especially if you’ve never experienced depression before and are about to repeat something you heard by chance or read in a magazine.

Instead, phrase questions that give the person control instead of pushing ideas on them as if they need to be “fixed” and “fixed” now. Examples are: “Is there anything you need?” “Is there anything that helps that I can help you with?” “What can I do?” Again, these are best not mentioned in groups. Do so if you have a moment alone with them. They’re also more likely to be honest instead of saying what they think you want to hear. 

3. Don’t ignore them completely.

It’s easy to give someone with depression space as a default, especially if you don’t know what else to do. Unless they’ve asked for space, let them in on conversations, even if they don’t speak much.

4. Don’t critique them — even in a joking way. 

This isn’t treating someone with kid gloves. This is respectful. When you’re depressed, sarcastic jokes often feel like a kick when you’re down. My family is made up of 98% sarcasm, so I can say from personal experience that what I would normally laugh at cuts deep when I’m depressed. Often, when someone is depressed, they’re already beating themselves up internally. Any criticism at this time, they will likely (I don’t speak for every depressed person) internalize 10 times worse than how you meant it.

5. Don’t act as if they’re ungrateful or selfish.

Just because someone is depressed doesn’t mean they’re also unaware of the fortunate things in their lives. It means they have no control over their mood. No amount of positive thinking, affirmations or grateful lists will necessarily help, because they’ve likely tried that leading up to the holidays. I find those tools helpful, but they don’t always work. They’re also not trying to make things about them. That’s why they may take a step back. Depression is diagnosable. It’s not attention-seeking.

6. An extension of #5 would be to say: Don’t be a bully.

This should be apparent, but in large groups, there seems to be one person who thinks they can force a depressed person to get on their level, just get over it and enjoy the holidays. Bullying can include the usual things you associate with bullying, but it also includes undermining their lives in ways that may seem minor like, “Well, did you do anything today?” “So you’ve just been lying in bed?” “You consider that dressed up?” Also, you can’t read minds, so don’t try. Saying, “So you’re just feeling sorry for yourself then?” is also a form of bullying and isn’t at all what depression is.

7. Don’t stay silent. Speak up for them if someone is being rude. 

It’s always been a huge relief when someone else stands up for me and uses facts to invalidate bullying toward me while depressed, or to just get someone to back off putting me under a microscope when that’s the worst thing someone can do, in my opinion.

8. Don’t take it too personally. 

When a depressed person is trying to act “normal,” it can come out weird! The joke may not land. The tone may be off even if the words are nice. Give them a break. I know I’ve said depressed people can take things personally and now I’m asking you not to, but your mental health is maybe healthy at the moment. You can decipher situations and behavior better. I’ve said things I immediately apologized for, not because my words were wrong or harmful but because my tone was off and it was interpreted wrong because I wasn’t my usual self while saying it. Assuming your mental health is in a good place and knowing it’s possible for you to misunderstand where someone is coming from as they’re talking to you, can you now imagine what it’s like for someone to navigate body language, tone and motive behind their words while depressed?

9. Remember a depressed person is doing the best they can. 

There may not be a lot of smiles or talk, but showing up is trying. And it’s hard. Sometimes it feels unbearable, but they do it! They do it because they still care, even if to you it seems like they don’t. Remember that!

10. Don’t treat us like we’re broken.

This may be the most important rule. There is still a stigma around mental health issues, so it’s important not to treat someone who is depressed like they’re faulty or fragile. Those who have experienced long-term or frequent depression usually know how to ride it out. This is different for everyone. What worked last time may not work this time. What works for one does not work for all. Confusing, right? So maybe you can see that depression is hard to live with and hard to navigate and teach, so give people the benefit of the doubt. If you break a rule, we’ll be forgiving too!

The important thing is to learn and to try. That’s life, right?

Getty Images photo via Zinkevych

Originally published: November 24, 2020
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