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Helping a family member with depression

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It's the merry month of May, or so the song implies. Spring is well and truly here. Families are looking forward to summer holidays and late evenings in the garden, everyone is happier at this time of year  right?

Not quite so. There are many people suffering depression at any time of year.

For 15 years, the Mental Health Foundation has chosen the month of May to launch its Mental Health Awareness Week. LionHeart is getting involved this year and raising awareness to support RICS Members and dependents.

As part of this, I'm writing about some of the dos and don'ts when supporting a family member with depression and to tell you about the support we offer at LionHeart.

It may be difficult to recognise when a family member is depressed, but there are some classic signs to look out for to help identify a loved one struggling with anxiety/depression. These include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of weight
  • Not sleeping/early morning waking (usually around 4am)
  • Difficulty in concentrating
  • Masked depression - this means they are covering it up and not outwardly talking about their low mood state.  They may be showing signs in other ways, such as indigestion, heartburn, muscle pain, joint pain, and chronic headaches
  • Loss of energy/sex drive
  • Tension
  • Nervousness
  • A change in personality
  • Feeling worthless and becoming despondent

Ok, so there are some signs right there that you recognise in someone you love, and you want to help. What next?

Dos and Don'ts
You don't need to be an expert in the subject. The most helpful thing you can do is to start talking about it.

Don't judge or criticise
The words that come out of your mouth can have a long-lasting, powerful impact. Avoid statements like: "You just need to see things as half full, not half empty",  "I think this is really all just in your head", "Try changing your routine and get out of bed", or "Pull yourself together". These imply that your loved one has a choice in how they feel and has chosen to be depressed. This can make the person withdraw and isolate themselves even further.

Don't offer advice
It probably seems natural to share advice with your loved one. Whenever someone we care about is having a tough time, we yearn to fix their heartache. While it may be true that the depressed person needs guidance, saying that will make them feel insulted or even more inadequate , leading to further detachment.

What helps is to ask: "What can we do to help you feel better?" This gives your loved one the opportunity to ask for help. When a person asks for help, they are more inclined to be guided and take direction without feeling insulted.

Don't make comparisons
Unless you've experienced a depressive episode yourself, saying that you know how a person with depression feels is not helpful . While your intention is probably to help your loved one feel less alone in their despair, this can cut short your conversation and minimize their experience.

Do be there
Just being there and listening can be really helpful. A hand to hold or a shoulder to cry on can lift the burden. Often, a depressed person does not understand the emotions and feelings they are experiencing. 

Do try a small gesture
If you feel uncomfortable expressing how you feel emotionally, then a small gesture or acknowledgement can go a long way. A simple text, voicemail or card can be very effective and feel like a pillar of support to someone feeling alone . 

Do learn as much as you can about depression
LionHeart's website has information to help you. Perhaps you can take a look at it together.

We also offer counselling.

When you or your family member feels ready, the team at LionHeart is here to take your call and listen in confidence. Why not give us a call to see how we can help? Call 0845 6039057.

Tracy Vernon is a support officer at LionHeart and has worked for the charity for three years.  

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