If you have a family member or friend with depression you are probably asking what you can do to help. The nature of depression means supporting them is not always easy or straightforward and often more confusing than helping someone recover from an operation or the flu. Mental health charities provide useful guidance for family and friends and are a good place to start. The advice is necessarily generic, however, and sometimes difficult to envision in practice. No one tames depression alone, though, and you have an important role to play, so here are some of the ways my family supported me through depression.
“How big is the black dog today, Mum?” my son asks as we cuddle down for a bedtime story. The black dog he refers to is not a beloved family pet but my depression. We have candidly discussed its fluctuating size together most nights since I was hospitalized with my condition a few years ago.
As part of my recovery I decided my children were owed an explanation for the “bizarre” behavior it had caused me to display. I wanted them to understand that none of it was their fault and for them to learn a language for expressing emotions, thoughts and talking about mental health.
So I purchased Matthew Johnstone’s books, “I Had a Black Dog” and “Living with a Black Dog.” These insightful picture books capture the reality of the illness perfectly using the black dog metaphor. It made my mood something objective to monitor and discuss, which made it easier for my children to understand and relate to. In fact, my children still find it easier to accept me and ask openly about my mental health than anyone.
The second part of our bedtime ritual was saying something good about our day, something bad about our day and something we were grateful for. Whether struggling with depression or not, this is a great way to deepen relationships and understanding with your children.
Indeed, health professionals recommend mood tracking and practicing gratitude as effective tools in coping with depression. These practices can be difficult to maintain in our busy lives, though, and the key is making them part of the fabric of your everyday. My children helped me do that and continue to. I like to think it helps us all stay healthy.
When I first started working through a large pile of self-help cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) courses and books in an attempt to “cure” myself, one activity was known as “bad thought busting.” I wrote a long list of “unhelpful” thoughts I had about myself and gave them to close family members to help me formulate a more “balanced” thought to replace it.
Admittedly, this must have been a harrowing read for those who loved me, but my dad was the one who replied in full with thought-through, pragmatic but funny, truly balanced alternatives. I couldn’t just dismiss them as platitudes, and they helped me see myself and my place in life in a more realistic way.
You really don’t need a degree in counseling to help someone with depression. It’s honesty and authenticity that matter when showing someone you care. I still read them now – my dad knew me a lot better than I’d given him credit for. Here are some of my favorites:
Me: “I am a nuisance.”
Dad: “I think you might have phoned me once for a lift when I was watching the footy on the telly. Otherwise, can’t think of any occasion you have been a nuisance. Lionel (family friend) can be a nuisance but we kinda love him anyway.”
Me: “I am too quiet and I can’t talk to people.”
Dad: “Thank God you don’t prattle on like some of your relations. Many people, like me, see that as an advantage. You can, of course, do it. I have heard you making small talk at parties, but I find it very inspiring that I can talk to you about almost anything and we can get to the meat of the discussion very quickly.”
Me: “I do not fit in anywhere.”
Dad: “You probably feel like this because you are not content just to be a part of the scenery but want to contribute and shape things – not just ‘fit in.’”
It is particularly easy to overlook the role my husband played in my recovery as he bore the brunt of my lengthy, shifting and confusing illness. He experienced the worst effects of my anger, my inability to feel, my irrationality and my exhaustion.
When I experienced a period of panic attacks, he talked me through each one calmly and with good humor. He helped me overcome a subsequent bout of agoraphobia by implementing a plan of exposure therapy. He patiently encouraged me to walk to my own front gate and celebrated success when I eventually managed to go into our local shop and buy something. He didn’t complain when I listened to sleep hypnosis tracks in bed over and over every night. He unobtrusively took over most of the childcare and housework when I couldn’t get out of bed.
And when he felt he couldn’t cope with me anymore, he called the doctors to come and get me. He made sure he looked after himself first, which was essential to my recovery and my children’s wellbeing.
When I returned home from the hospital, he listened to all I’d learned and helped me plan weekly activities and understand how to set small goals like “color in with the kids for 15 minutes after school” in place of the anxiety-inducing grandiose ones I was used to making. He found and booked a personal trainer for me, and the two of them encouraged me to enjoy exercise, which was one of the most fundamental elements in my recovery.
The woman he married was absent from his life for several years while dealing with depression and several more while putting in the time and effort it took to recover. He did not leave or ever even threaten to. I’m ashamed I can’t say the same for myself. I don’t think that woman ever fully came back, but he seems to love the one in her place just as much.
Mothers can find mental illness in their children the hardest to accept, and it can expose some of their deepest insecurities. Many parents think it must be their fault or that depression is a criticism of their parenting in some way. It is also a natural instinct of a parent to want to fix their child’s problems and suggest lots of solutions. You cannot fix someone’s depression in this way, however.
I think my mum battled with these feelings. She found it difficult to listen to or talk to me, but her practical help was invaluable. She looked after the children if I was having a bad day or in the hospital, cooked meals and was a great source of support for my husband.
She was also instrumental in finding the money to have me transferred from an essential but overwhelmed and directionless NHS psych ward to a no-nonsense, highly structured private hospital where I received the treatment and therapy that best suited my needs.
I realize I am luckier than most to have parents willing and able to pay for this, but I don’t think I’d still be here if they hadn’t.
Group therapy played a critical role in my hospital treatment, as it was where I realized I was not alone and felt the love and understanding that could only come from the fellow broken, perfectly, imperfect people around me. From this, I found the strength to accept and care for my own flawed self.
Leaving the hospital and this network of support behind was a scary experience. By the time I was hospitalized with depression I was so withdrawn from reality that I didn’t really have any active friends from which to create another support network.
There were a few old friends, however, who, when they realized what I was going through, contacted me with genuine support. It’s not always those you expect who are best placed to help you out of such a dark place. They were friends I hadn’t spoken to for some time and were finding their way through their own vulnerabilities. They called me regularly but didn’t expect anything from me. They texted me through the day asking open and honest questions and never passing judgment. I was able to share with them observations and thoughts I couldn’t with anyone else. As I got better, and life busier, we lost touch again, but I know who to text if I need to and I hope they know the same.
Further resources I’d recommend:
- Mind for Better Mental Health
- Psychology Today: How Gratitude Combats Depression
- NHS: Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: How Does It Work?
If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.