Depression is an illness affecting about 16 million people in the United States each year. While effective treatments are available, unfortunately the stigma of being seen as weak, inadequate or broken prevents many from seeking care. Family and friends of those experiencing depression can help reduce that stigma by understanding the illness and supporting loved ones as they seek treatment.
Depression, the illness, differs from the sadness that is a normal part of life. It is biologically based and mediated by neurotransmitters including serotonin, dopamine and stress hormones like cortisol. It is often experienced as a heavy or dark mood, and can be accompanied by feelings of guilt or anxiety. Depression can drain the enjoyment out of life, disturb sleep, appetite, energy, concentration and functioning. It may worsen to the point that life does not seem worth living and suicide is considered.
When a loved one is depressed, listen and be respectful of what they are experiencing. It’s important not to be dismissive of the concerns they may have. Avoid using phrases like “get over it” or “what do you have to be depressed about?” Approach depression the same way you would if that person faced diabetes or any other medical illness.
When a loved one is seeking treatment, be supportive of their efforts. You can do this by being encouraging, positive and interested. It’s important to respect privacy, but you can check in with them and express a willingness to help if needed; maybe run errands or provide transportation. Optimizing sleep schedules, good nutrition and regular exercise are important as well. Being respectful of time needed for appointments, supporting healthy eating habits, and joining that loved one at the gym or on a walk are other ways to support their mental health.
Remember, depression is something a person has, not something they are; your loved one is the person they’ve always been, they’re just dealing with some different challenges. Include them and care about them. By reducing the stigma of being diagnosed with depression and seeking treatment, you can help your friend or family member lead a healthy, happy life.
Dr. Teresa Gevedon is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry in the University of Kentucky Department of Psychiatry.