When Scott Davis, 38, was suffering from major depression, he confided in his sister-law. “One day I found myself talking to her about all my fears about the depression, and the medication and therapy I was beginning. I was overcome with anxiety about my future, and she said, ‘I’ve been there.’ Those three words lifted all the pain I was feeling.”
Few decisions are as personal as whether to tell a loved one that you are suffering from major depression. “Telling someone about depression isn’t something that you should enter into lightly, but if you choose a person whom you can trust, it can be a positive experience,” Davis says.
Xavier Amador, PhD, an adjunct professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University, says confiding in one trusted person is a key part of the treatment. “If you can, try to find someone who believes that depression is an illness. Most people don’t know all that much about it. A lot of suffering is prolonged by not telling someone.”
Kristen, who asked that her last name not be used, says she had been depressed for most of her teenage years. But she didn’t tell her parents about her illness until she landed in a psychiatric ward at the age of 20 and they called her cell phone, wanting to know where she was. “I didn’t want to put them through it, even though I had been depressed for a long time. I knew how much it would hurt them, and I didn’t want to do that to them,” she says.
Kristen, now 25, said her parents were "fantastic," educating themselves about depression and acting as case managers by interacting with her treatment team when she could not.
She says that people who are depressed have to do what’s best for them in their situation. “I know people whose parents kicked them out of the house, or who don’t believe in depression,” she says. “Whether to divulge or not is a very personal thing.”
Depression: How to Approach Family and Friends
Most people still know little about major depression. A loved one may be frightened by seeing someone in its grip, even if they want to help.
You may not want or be able to go into a lengthy discussion with them about what major depression is, but Davis recommends that you don’t sugarcoat it either. “If you have severe depression, tell them,” he says.
You might tell the person that you probably won't feel like talking much or doing any of the activities you used to enjoy, but that their support is comforting. If you feel like going for a walk or seeing a funny movie, ask them to go with you but not to push you to do more.
A very important note: If you are feeling suicidal, it’s not the time to be secretive. Call 911 or go to an emergency room or call a suicide hotline. Your call will remain confidential, and the people on the other end of the line are well trained.
Depression: How Family and Loved Ones May Respond
When you tell a family member that you have depression, the person may not know how to react. Be prepared for a range of emotions, from confusion to anger to denial.
If the loved one says something along the lines of “it’s all in your head,” or “why don’t you just snap out of it,” (treatment can take weeks to kick in), Amador suggests that you say, “I’d be the first person to snap out of this if I could,” and “I’m going to be better soon, but please try to be patient.” Later, when you’re feeling better, you can provide more details or help to educate the loved one about major depression.
A loved one is likely to suggest various “home remedies” to help you, such as going out for a drink, or using “tough love,” Amador says. “It’s important to ask your loved ones not to pressure you.” Although it’s obvious that alcohol won’t help your depression and is, in fact, a depressant, “tough love rarely works with depression and can be damaging,” he says. Still, it’s good to give a friend or loved one a sense of hope about the illness. “Tell them you are taking steps to get better,” he says.
If your spouse or close friend wants you to go to a social event and you’re not up to it, ask him to watch a movie with you instead. “Having someone gently prod you to go for a walk, or to a lighthearted movie, can be beneficial,” Amador says. Exercise is a proven mood-booster.
Be sure to ask the person who is giving support how he or she is doing. “When you give back to someone, you’re reminding yourself that you care about the other person, too, that you can be a giving person, even if you aren’t able to respond fully because of the depression,” Amador says.
Depression: How Family and Loved Ones Can Help
There are several practical steps a spouse, sibling, friend, or parent can take to help a loved one who is experiencing major depression:
- Make sure the person is taking his medication; offer to drive him to doctors’ or therapist appointments or to fill prescriptions. In Kristen's case, her parents were a conduit for information, talking to various doctors and therapists when she couldn’t.
- Provide feedback. Someone with major depression is probably in therapy or on medication (or both). By keeping an eye out for certain behaviors, you’ll help the person report back to his doctor. This is particularly helpful if the loved one has anxiety or isn’t sure if medication is working.
- Provide financial help. Therapy and medications are expensive and may not be covered by insurance.
- Be there, even if you’re not talking. When someone is feeling anxious or sad, knowing he or she is not alone is an immense help.
- Educate yourself. There are many web sites, books, and articles that discuss depression.
“Just knowing that someone else knows that you’re suffering can be a very good and safe feeling,” Davis says. “Everyone likes to know that someone is in their corner.”