We all feel down from time to time – particularly when we’re going through a difficult period. But if someone you know hasn’t been themselves for a while, it’s possible they may be depressed. They may not even realise it themselves – often it’s a friend or family member who spots the signs and symptoms. It’s natural to want to reach out and help a loved one who’s struggling with depression. But where do you start? Here’s what to look out for – and how to support someone with depression.

Important: If you think someone is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention helpline.

What is depression?

Depression is a common mental health problem. The World Health Organization estimates that 5% of adults worldwide suffer from it. So up to one in 20 of the people you know could be struggling with depression – even if you don’t know it.

Depression isn’t the same as being unhappy. Feelings of being sad, down or fed up are normal, and happen to all of us from time to time. But if these feelings persist for weeks or months, or if they interfere with daily life, it may be depression. Sadness, like all human emotions, will pass. Depression doesn’t budge.

There might be a specific reason or situation that triggers depression – for example life events such as bereavement, redundancy, divorce or giving birth. Someone with a family history of depression might also be more at risk. But sometimes there’s no obvious explanation.

With the right treatment and support, most people with depression make a full recovery. Options include therapy and self-help tools. Find out how to get started with My Online Therapy – or check out our Self-care audio course ‘Deal with Depression’ for lots of information, approaches and practical tips.

Signs that someone you know may be depressed

If someone you know is depressed, they might not be the first to know it. Symptoms can creep up very gradually, and they might not realise that their mood, routine or behaviour has changed. Men in particular are less likely to recognise depression or seek help for it than women. Often it’s a partner, family member or friend who spots the signs. But what should you look for?

Although depression can affect people in different ways, and there are different levels of severity, common symptoms of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of sadness and low mood
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Feelings of guilt and self-blame
  • Feeling tearful, indecisive or anxious
  • Feeling irritable and intolerant of other people
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • Loss of interest in things that used to bring you joy
  • Sleeping difficulties, sleeping too much or too little
  • Loss of appetite or increased appetite (comfort eating)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Lack of interest in sex
  • Having thoughts about suicide or self-harm

If you’ve noticed any of these signs in your partner, family member, friend or colleague, it’s possible that they’re suffering from depression. But what should you do about it?

10 ways you can support someone with depression

It’s difficult seeing someone we love struggling, being in distress or even in crisis. We don’t want to say the wrong thing or make things worse. But by just being there, and being open and available, you can help enormously.

Depression can range from mild to moderate to severe, and the ways you can support your loved one are likely to depend on the severity of their symptoms. Importantly, if they’re in a very bad place, you might need to prioritise getting help for them – even contacting a suicide prevention helpline. For milder symptoms, there’s a wide range of support you can offer.

  1. Listen to them. Depression is isolating. It can make all the difference to let your loved one know that they’re not alone. Create an opportunity for them to speak openly about what they’re going through. Useful conversation openers can include: “You don’t seem to have been yourself lately. Is anything the matter? Can I help?” If they don’t want to talk, don’t force it – but let them know that they can talk to you if they want. And you don’t have to try and ‘fix’ them. It’s enough to listen.
  2. Don’t judge. It’s not helpful to say things like “snap out of it” or “pull yourself together”. If they could, they would have already. Contrary to what some people think, depression is a genuine health condition with real symptoms. It’s not a trivial complaint, or a sign of weakness. Listen sympathetically, with an open mind and without judgement or blame.
  3. Encourage them to get help. Don’t be pushy – you can’t force someone to seek help – but reassure them that it’s OK to ask for help. There are many sources of help available, including GPs, therapists, support groups, online forums, self-help books and resources such as our Self-care audio course ‘Deal with Depression’.
  4. Support them in treatment. If your partner, family member or friend is currently receiving treatment – such as therapy – let them know that you’re there to support them. If they talk about quitting therapy or medication, encourage them to keep going. Maybe tell them what an improvement you’ve noticed in them so far.
  5. Learn about depression. It helps to be informed, both about depression and about what resources are available. There are plenty of books and reputable online sources of information and advice available – including the My Online Therapy blog.
  6. Keep in touch. Your loved one may not have the energy to keep in contact with you. Don’t take it personally, and make the effort from your side. Even a text message to say you’re thinking of them can help.
  7. Do activities together. Depression can make people lose interest in activities they once enjoyed – yet these activities can help recovery. The mental health benefits of exercise are well known, for example. Exercise may be the last thing your friend wants to do, since depression can cause tiredness – but even a short walk can help. And the activities you do together don’t have to be physical. You could go out to lunch, join a book group, create art or watch a film.
  8. Bring a furry friend. Research suggests that pets have mental health benefits – including reducing stress, anxiety and loneliness, and boosting mood. Next time you visit your friend, why not bring the dog? Better yet, go for a dog walk with them!
  9. Offer practical help. Depression can feel exhausting and overwhelming. If you’re able, help with practical tasks such as shopping, cooking or looking after the kids for a few hours may be appreciated. But don’t take over everything – encourage them to do things themselves too. And ask what they’d most like some help with.
  10. Look after yourself too. Supporting someone with depression can take its toll. Set some boundaries, and make sure you block out some ‘me time’ that’s just for you. That could be a yoga class, reading a book or catching up on that TV series you’ve been meaning to watch. Make sure you have some support too. That might be a chat with a friend, or you could join a support group or speak to a therapist yourself.

Left untreated, depression can have a devastating effect on someone’s quality of life – and on those closest to them. It can interfere with work and daily activities, and put them at greater risk of other mental health problems – such as anxiety, eating disorders and sleep disorders. It can even lead to substance abuse in an effort to cope with difficult feelings.

By being a good friend, partner or family member, and supporting your loved one, you can help them take the first important steps to treatment – and recovery.