More likely than not, someone you love—your significant other, BFF, or family member—is dealing with depression or anxiety. Nearly 50 percent of American adults will develop at least one mental illness during their lifetime, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And because of the widespread stigma surrounding mental illness, many people hesitate to ask for help. So if a loved one reveals that they are suffering—or if you think they are—your compassion can help them through the recovery process.
“People suffering from depression or anxiety often feel as if they are alone," says Dr. Elizabeth Cohen, PhD, a New York City-based clinical psychologist. "Asking someone who is depressed how they are doing can be a gift to them—it shows them they matter to other people.”
Here's how to be supportive and compassionate when someone you know is suffering from mental illness.
1. Recognize the signs
Everyone feels sad or anxious from time to time. That's why it can be difficult for people to identify if they're experiencing a few days of malaise or if it's depression or anxiety, explains Dr. Jacqueline Gollan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University.
If someone tells you she's struggling or you recognize the signs, offer support.
To better gauge the situation, Gollan offers the checklist she uses in mental health evaluation. Symptoms of depression include feeling sad, worthless, or guilty; having difficulty thinking, concentrating, or making decisions; thoughts of death or suicide; and lack of pleasure in things that were once enjoyable. Symptoms of anxiety disorders include persistent and excessive worry that affects daily life, including difficulty concentrating, restlessness, problems sleeping, or panic attacks. If someone tells you she's struggling or you recognize the signs, listen. You can't "fix" it for her, but you can offer support.
2. Show you care
“Someone who's going through a stressful time wants to know they're not alone," says Courtney Glashow, LCSW, a New Jersey-based psychotherapist and founder of Anchor Therapy, LLC. "They want to know their feelings are valid and real." She recommends continuing to reach out and be a sympathetic listener even if they try to withdraw.
For depressed or anxious people, life looks different and distorted.
Try to understand that for depressed or anxious people, life looks different and distorted. People who are depressed or anxious see the world from a steady, internal perspective, says Cohen. In turn, that causes them to think everything is terrible, that it's their fault, and that nothing will change.
That's why it's so helpful to provide examples that prove the opposite is true. If a friend is upset about a perceived failure, for instance, Cohen recommends bringing up a past success. "That will help them recall what it felt like to be in a different state of mind than they are right now,” she says.
3. Encourage them to embrace a healthy lifestyle
Depression and anxiety can make it difficult, if not impossible, to lead a healthy lifestyle. How can you make it to a morning flow class if just getting out of bed feels like a monumental achievement? Gollan recommends checking in on your loved ones to encourage them to keep a normal sleep schedule, eat three nutritious meals a day, get out of bed in the morning, and exercise. Accomplishing goals, even small ones, creates a sense of mastery, which can reduce symptoms of depression.
If someone is anxious, Gollan recommends helping him or her recognize the likelihood that something bad will happen, think of actions they can take to increase or decrease that probability, and work on letting go of the anxiety.
4. Help them seek treatment
Your support will help, yes—but serious treatment for depression and anxiety requires a mental health professional. If your friend of S.O. is apprehensive, help them find a practitioner and offer to escort them to their first appointments.
It's crucial to know if your loved one is in an emergency situation, too. Gollan advises taking these steps: Ask if they have a history of self-harm, want to hurt themselves, or are engaging in self-destructive behaviors. If you recognize signs of suicidal ideation such as hopelessness, reckless behavior, mood swings, or drastic personality changes, ensure that they see a professional immediately. Helping a mentally ill friend or family member is rarely easy, but you may help save a life—literally.
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