How to Actually Help a Loved One Who Seems Depressed Over the Holidays
Maybe you picked up a few signs on the phone beforehand: a comment about exhaustion here, a tone of sadness there. But there’s nothing like spending significant time with your mom, dad, brother or sister to really see all the red flags (such as lack of energy, sadness, changes in sleep and eating patterns, and loss of interest in favorite activities).
The holidays can be a vulnerable period for people, so a family member’s symptoms of depression may become especially clear. “Some people are affected by less sunlight and more gray days—plus this season may remind people of the loss of their loved ones, and all the stress of hosting and buying gifts can put extra pressure on people,” says Kristen Wynns, PhD, psychologist and owner of Wynns Family Psychology in Raleigh, NC.
Seeing a loved one suffer is particularly tough during a season so built on togetherness and happy traditions. “This can be difficult on you, because in the past, doing those activities would make your loved one really happy,” says Dr. Wynns. But remember this: “Trying to get your sibling or parent out of the house for holiday fun probably seems like an easy solution from your standpoint—but it’s not that simple for a person with depression,” she adds.
So what do you do if you’ve picked up that your family member has depression, and either doesn’t know it or doesn’t want to get help? Dr. Wynns shares her sound advice.
1. Bring it up the right way
If you think that your loved one could have depression, don't ignore it. “Depression is a difficult topic to address, and it may be easier to dance around the issue and pretend that everything is fine—but for the sake of your loved one, you’re going to want a find a way to talk about it,” says Dr. Wynns.
But don't just barge in and outright tell them that they're depressed. This will put them on the defensive, "and they’ll be more apt to deny everything,” says Dr. Wynns. They might also have preconceived notions about what depression looks like (maybe they think it's just being sad, or think only certain types of people get it) and thus wouldn't see their experiences matching those assumptions.
Instead, “when first speaking to your family member about the issue, it’s a good idea to express concern about specific behavioral changes,” says Dr. Wynns.
For example, you could say, “I’m concerned about how you’re doing. You weren’t feeling up for our holiday dinner, and you usually like to help make cookies, but you mentioned you didn’t have energy for that this year—so I’m worried about you.” Ideally addressing it in this way gives them more clarity about what exactly you've been seeing, and opens up the conversation.
2. Offer to help any way you can
Because depression can be extremely isolating, it's really important to show your loved one they're not alone, and that they can rely on you for help.
“You may want to say something like, ‘I know this is tough, but you have to see somebody,'" says Dr. Wynns. Be firm, while also offering ways to take on some of the burden (since finding solutions on their own may seem overwhelming otherwise.) Some ideas via Dr. Wynns: offering to schedule a therapy appointment, or watching some informational videos or listening to podcasts about mental health.
3. Stay away from judgement
One thing you shouldn't do is try to "talk" someone out of their depression. "People should accept the feelings their family members have, rather than saying things like ‘You could have it worse,’ ‘It’s not that bad,’ or ‘I don’t know why this is upsetting you so much,’” says Dr. Wynns. "They’re actually critiques and judgements of the person, which aren’t productive or helpful."
Instead, you’ll want to be open and non-judgmental—it’s not your job to approve or disapprove of how they feel, she says. (No matter how much it may upset you.) Show how you understand where they're coming from by using the language they use to talk about their feelings. For example, if they tell you they’ve been feeling really down, you could reply, “I’m so sorry you’re feeling down lately and going through this.”
It sounds simple, but Dr. Wynns says it's actually really effective. "They are where they say they are, and you just want them to know you’re right there with them in the journey to help them feel better,” she says.
4. Avoid an argument
One important thing to remember: Depression affects your thinking. So you may face some pushback from your family member (like, "There's no point—this isn't going to get better,") that might seem irrational to you, says Dr. Wynns.
Don't let that deter you from making suggestions and offering help and support. But try do do whatever you can not to argue about the situation, which won’t get you—or your loved one—anywhere. Instead, find a solution that will lead to some sort of action. “The goal is to be the family member who is moving the process forward,” says Dr. Wynns.
Have a particularly resistant family member? “You could even say, ‘I know you don’t want to do it, but let’s just do it for me—humor me,’” says Dr. Wynns. They may feel obligated to do you the favor.
5. Assess how serious the issue is
If things seem especially bad, you should ask if they’ve had suicidal thoughts or considered self-harm. “Some family members are afraid of asking, because they’re worried they’ll plant those seeds, but we know that’s not the case—if your loved one hasn’t thought about it, you won’t be giving them the idea,” says Dr. Wynns.
She suggests phrasing the question like: “Have things gotten so bad that you’ve thought about suicide, wanting to die, or hurting yourself?” Hopefully, asking in this way will capture if one of these concerns is indeed at play. “They might admit to having thoughts about wishing they could die, and then the conversation about getting help can go from there,” says Dr. Wynns.
If they’re resistant to seeing a professional and you have serious concerns that they’re suicidal, there are times when someone needs to take drastic action and call 911, or drive their loved one to the hospital.
“Your family member may be mad at you for it, but it’s worth it for them to be alive—it’s much better to deal with their anger than the alternative of losing your family member,” says Dr. Wynns.
6. In the future, check in early
If you know, say, that your mom or brother is particularly vulnerable around the holidays, talk to them a month or two beforehand about how they’re feeling, advises Dr. Wynns. “It’s better to talk to them frequently in the beginning of the season, rather than wait until they’re really struggling,” says Dr. Wynns.
And know that with your help, if they continue to take positive steps, there’s a good chance they’ll notice changes. “We now have figured out that so many things are linked to improvements in depression beyond therapy and medication, whether that’s exercise, meditation, utilizing your social support network, or engaging in fun activities,” says Dr. Wynns.
“Even if someone just chooses one or two therapies their first week—like a half-hour of exercise and a phone call with a friend—and the next week they add another, they’ll likely see traction,” she adds.
If you or someone you love is suicidal, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8755 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
Here's why your anxiety so often gets worse at night. And if you want to understand depression more, here's a look at the different types.
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