The ‘depression traffic lights’ method can help you spot a friend who’s struggling


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I’ve had, oh, a whole lot of trouble helping certain loved ones understand when I’m feeling depressed, and perhaps my personal experiences with being blue has helped me develop an ability to identify when someone else is struggling. Even so, I know it’s not always easy to communicate just how severe depression levels may be. Luckily, there’s a method that can help.

A recent Instagram post by Australian advocacy organization The Depression Project points to the Depression Traffic Light framework for identifying depression levels. The zones are pretty straightforward: green indicates mild symptoms, where you’re floating by; orange indicates moderate symptoms, where you’re treading against the waves; and red is when the sufferer is in the whirlpool. The framework helps people identify and express what they’re experiencing. And, in addition to providing a tool to people who are struggling with feelings of depression, it can help advocates and loved ones know how to help someone they believe to be suffering.

Let’s say you’re in the latter camp as a loved one or advocate for someone who seems to exhibit symptoms of depression: How can you help? No matter the depression levels in question, much of being a successful advocate means ensuring you talk and listen in ways that are supportive—but knowing whether talking or listening is the best first route is where the colors really come in handy.

When someone’s in the green zone, for example, you may not even notice at first—that’s why asking is key if things feel off. “If you notice a friend with mild symptoms, do your best to draw them out,” says psychotherapist Aimee Hartstein, LCSW. “Feel free to mention that they seem a bit subdued, and ask how they are doing.”

The yellow zone is a bit easier to spot, based on typical behavior. “They’re likely going to have a hard time ‘faking it’, and their negative thoughts, hopelessness, and sadness is probably going to emerge,” Hartstein adds. “The best thing to do for this friend is make it clear that you are happy to listen. You can also ask them if there’s anything special that they need from you.” Rather than dead-end questions like “are you okay?” and “what’s wrong?” ask something more specific, like “you seem like you’re struggling recently—would you like to talk about it?” or “what can I do to help?”

Then there comes the red zone; severe depression requires a very different approach, and more often than not, the intervention of a professional. With this depression level, the person suffering often feels hopeless, paralyzed, and perhaps even suicidal. The first order of business for helping this person is to identify if that’s a currently a risk.

“It might be a little uncomfortable, but if a friend seems to be intensely depressed, you can ask them if they have suicidal thoughts,” Hartstein says. “If they say yes and if they have a plan, you should either contact their family, or take it upon yourself to get them to a therapist or an ER.”

If not, close monitoring might still be advised. According to Hartstein, a person in this kind of depression zone needs extra kindness and encouragement to get out of bed, eat, get to work, and get professional help. While this person can use whatever amount of help and attention you’re comfortable offering, be sure not to put your own mental health and well-being at risk by overextending yourself.

So rather than just assuming someone is okay, asking where in the zones they may be is your actual first step for helping someone. From there, you at least have an idea of how to proceed. No matter what, though, it always helps to hug people extra hard (if they want a hug) and check in about their mental health status…regardless of whether any lights are flashing.

Need some extra words of kindness? Five women with depression share what they wish they could’ve told themselves. And here’s how to be supportive if you’re dating someone who’s struggling with depression.

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