Depression: how family members can help


Almost one in five people will suffer from depression during their lifetime. This is a difficult situation for both those affected and their family members. Nevertheless, relatives can do a lot to support those who are ill.

At which point does feeling low become a depression?

Depressive moods or sadness are normal emotional states that we've all experienced at one time or another. The difference between low moods and clinical depression lies in the extent of the symptoms and their duration.

To make an initial assessment, the following two-question test can be useful:
  1. Have you often felt gloomy, dejected or despairing over the last month?
  2. Have you noticed a significant reduction over the last month in the pleasure you feel when doing things you usually enjoy?

If the answer to both questions is yes, it would be advisable to see a family doctor, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.

What can family members do?

When someone in the family suffers from depression, the rest of the family is at a loss as to what to do: how should I behave when my husband suddenly seems to be absent? Should I speak to him about it or leave him alone? Is it counter-productive to tell my wife that I'm extremely worried about her? And is there anything I can do to help?

To start with, it’s good to know that depression isn't an irreversible fate. It can be treated. The earlier professional help is sought, the better the chances of recovery. This explains why we can confidently tell the sufferer that they will soon feel better again.

Family members can also help by
  • encouraging the person to continue their therapy.
  • being there and listening.
  • trying to understand how depression feels.
  • taking the illness seriously, without playing it down, but without dramatising it either.
  • being willing to endure the illness and overcome it together.
  • being patient.

What should family members not do?

«Look at how nice the sun is today. Try and enjoy it.» Depressives often get to hear such well-intentioned suggestions. But they're just as unhelpful as admonitions or reproaches like: «Just pull yourself together.» People who are depressed wish for nothing more than to be their active and cheerful selves again. But, due to their illness, they are hindered by their own body. It’s not that they don’t want to — they simply can’t. Which is why it’s not very helpful, and even aggravates the problem, when others try to appeal to their will.

What does help, however, is to
  • encourage the person when they do something of their own initiative.
  • help them gradually return to a daily routine. Often it's the simplest activities like getting dressed or going to the postbox that have become unmanageable. Every step counts, no matter how small.

Depression in parents: How do I explain to my child what Mummy or Daddy has?

Even small children are acutely aware when their parents are unwell. But they can’t understand what is happening and quickly blame themselves. For this reason, parents shouldn't leave them to cope alone but should explain the illness to them. Books are good for this: «Mamas Monster» or «Annikas andere Welt» are suitable for small children. For older children and teenagers: «Mein Schwarzer Hund: Wie ich meine Depression an die Leine legte».

What can family members do when they run out of strength?

Depression can last for months, and is exhausting for the rest of the family. They often feel powerless or guilty, drained and overwhelmed, and sometimes angry too. It's important that they recognise these limits and take care of their own health by

  • taking a break.
  • talking to friends.
  • joining a support group for relatives
  • if necessary, going to the therapist themselves or arranging a family discussion with the therapist and the patient too. It can be a relief to hear from a professional how a depression runs, what treatment options are available, and that it is legitimate for relatives to seek help as well.

It is important not to abandon the person who is ill, but to be honest and say that you will continue to be there for them, but that you can't do it alone.

How should family members deal with rejection?

Depressed people sometimes refuse to engage with anyone at all and can be dismissive. For those wanting to help, this can be difficult to understand and hurtful. However, those who are depressed aren't acting in bad faith, but can't act any differently at that moment. Relatives who are aware of this fact and don’t take the rejection personally will find it easier to deal with. The most unhelpful reaction would be to abandon the person in need.

Further information

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