Any mental health professional will tell you that when it comes to mental illness and treating a mood disorder, depression is particularly challenging. What to the outside may appear as a lack of energy or will to do very much can actually take the form of intense suicidal thoughts on the inside. So if you want to help, knowing how to spot the symptoms of depression is crucial.
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What are the depression symptoms you need to look out for?
No depression treatment can begin without first spotting the emerging signs of depression. These warning signs are often obvious in hindsight, but that’s not what you have in the present. Even in episodes of severe depression, you can easily mistake a significant risk of suicide for an everyday low mood in your loved one. This isn’t your fault, but you can do something about it by knowing the warning signs and understanding depression:
- A depressed person will typically show little or no regard for, or interest in, their own life
- They will often be unwilling to speak to a healthcare professional or seek professional help, citing their belief that it will make no difference
- When a person’s life spirals to the point of a complete disregard for self-care, and at times even self-harm, depression is often the cause
- Weight gain, a lack of emotion and no interest in things they used to enjoy and talk at length about are also classic symptoms of depression
- A repeated attempt to voice feelings of sadness, only to trail off because they feel nothing is worth it, is another sign someone is experiencing depression and difficult emotions
It’s crucial at this stage to remember the depressed person doesn’t need you to suddenly act like their full-time carer or caregiver. They just need your emotional support. The fact they’re showing a severe loss of interest in life doesn’t mean they have to seek professional care if they don’t want to. It does, however, mean that you should pay close attention to their actions in the days and weeks ahead.
What does every depressed person wish you knew?
If you have ever experienced depression, this section will resonate with you. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will frequently hear from people who have been directed toward complex psychiatry they don’t feel comfortable with. While the intentions will have no doubt been good, the person suffering from depression merely wants to know that you understand how they feel. Here are some crucial things to keep in mind when it comes to playing a role in helping a loved one process the impact of major depression:
- They are a unique person in their own right and reserve the right to feel any way they currently feel — putting pressure on them to ‘cheer up’ will only make them feel like you don’t understand
- Pushing someone to ring a hotline will only put more pressure on them because they often feel they cannot even find the will to get out of bed
- Being depressed is not the same thing as being very sad or upset, and it’s also not a sign that they’re being lazy or unwilling to do things to make their life better
- Listing all of the health conditions which can arise as a result of the way they’re potentially mistreating themselves will not result in an instant fix
- There will be good days and bad days, but the feelings of depression never feel like they’re going to go away long enough for them to enjoy life again
When your loved one is suffering from a major depressive disorder, the chances are they will be unable to see any real point in being alive. This isn’t designed to shock you or make you jump into action — it’s merely an attempt to show you what’s going on inside.
What is the real impact of depression?
Simply listing the symptoms of depression will not give you a complete picture of what your loved one is experiencing. They may not be able to share the way they feel with you right now, which is why looking at a sample of the broader population can be highly insightful. These thought-provoking figures give a sense of the scale of the problem in the UK right now:
- 13% of men in England will be diagnosed with depression at some point during their life, rising to 24% for women
- Depression leads to lifestyle and self-care habits which are a major contributory factor to suicide and a trigger for the development of coronary heart disease
- Depression will frequently present itself in tandem with other mental health issues, such as bipolar disorder and anxiety disorders
- 2.1% of children and young people aged 5-19 are suffering from diagnosed depression right now
These statistics may make you feel like you alone cannot do anything for your friend or loved one, but there’s another vital statistic you need to know:
- 90% of people beat depression within one year of being diagnosed, and this is consistent across age groups
This gives you hope that with the right approach, you’ll be able to help them to help themselves so they can return to living the type of life they deserve.
Why does treating depression start with being open?
Helping a loved one with their mental health in later life will never be quick and easy; accepting this the moment you commit to helping is vital. The next step is to find a way to reach out and connect with them that will ensure they know you are:
- On their side and do not think they’re being lazy or moody
- Aware of the severity of depression, even if you haven’t experienced it yourself
- Available to talk, listen or just spend time in their company whenever they need you
- Not going to push them to do something they’re neither willing nor capable of doing right now
- Never going to judge them for feeling the way they do and never going to tell anyone anything that should be kept private between the two of you
It is imperative to find a way to reach out so they know you’re there to help them fight depression. Helping an older depression sufferer can also have the added complication that mental health was rarely talked about when they were growing up. The stigma attached to mental health, and the emphasis on strength of character and hard work, can make speaking out very challenging for those struggling in later life. Bearing this in mind will help you find a way to get them to open up, one step at a time.
How can you help a sufferer of depression to open up?
The key here is to build trust to show your loved one you are there for them, but without simply following their pattern of behaviour. There is so much to know about mental health, and one of the critical points is you will not be able to help someone simply by agreeing with them about how bad their life has become.
While you want to empathise and avoid things like ‘tough love,' you also don’t want to reinforce their belief that nothing will ever get better. What you need is a way to get them talking, moving, or even just thinking about something that will use their mind in a positive way:
- Something as simple as doing housework with them so they feel like they’re not alone can have a significant positive impact
- Finding some old photos of long-forgotten Christmases and family holidays will spark dormant parts of their brain back into life
- Asking them to help you with something you know they are good at — like fixing a bike or hanging a picture — will make them feel useful again
Once you get them to open up for the first time, it is crucial to find ways to continue this journey.
We spoke to Jane McNeice, Founding Director and Principal Trainer at Mind Matters Mental Health Training, who told Health Times: “Key to supporting a friend or loved one who is experiencing depression is to offer kindness and compassion. Effective listening skills are essential, as is empathy. Rather than trying to ‘fix’ the situation or person, we must try to facilitate a pathway forward for them to do so. Only can the person in need ‘fix’ what is not okay, if indeed they know what that is.
"You however may be the person who facilitates a process that helps the person to do that, and the earlier we can do so the better - early intervention benefits all health conditions, including mental illnesses such as depression, and there are some great tips in this article that can support as interventions to improve mood levels in those feeling depressed.
"Supporting starts with noticing the signs of low mood and depression, the changes, having the confidence to open and have a conversation about mental health, understanding the difference between an everyday low mood and depression, and knowing when and where to signpost for professional support. These can all be learned through evidence-based quality training courses.
"Our role as the supportive person is very often to be the ‘holder of hope,’ to remind our friend or loved one that the light is still there, even when it can feel very dark inside and out.”
What happens if depression is left untreated, and what can you do to change this?
When depression is left untreated, it can have a severe impact on a friend or loved one who was previously happy and healthy:
- Isolation is particularly common in sufferers of depression and can have a severe negative effect on those in later life when added to their other social issues
- Depressive episodes that go on for months and years will result in a deterioration of physical health. This is due to a combination of stress on the body and lifestyle choices which reduce overall wellness and the quality of recovery
- Insomnia occurs in 75% of people who suffer depression for one month or more, resulting in increased stress and anxiety and reduced ability to recover physically
The most important thing is to maintain trust, patience and openness with the person you’re trying to help. Depression, by its very nature, makes sufferers not want to reach out, take action or make drastic changes to their way of life. This isn’t a sign they’re lazy or unwilling to listen — it’s a sign that things are much worse than anyone realised until recently.
When someone suffers from depression, they will typically feel lost and worthless. By gaining their trust and helping them to develop a routine for everyday life, you can help remove a large part of this by making small steps, one day at a time.
Seeing them at the same time each week or doing the same activity at the same time each day will provide a sense of purpose. Being consistent and dedicated in how you try to help a loved one is very important in this sense because they need to know you believe they can get better. Once they start making a couple of small steps, subtly encourage them to do a little more, rather than telling them that this proves they really could have been doing it all along.
If in doubt about how to help someone deal with depression in their later years, be kind and seek the advice of a specialist the moment you suspect they wish to harm themselves.