How to Care for Loved Ones with Depression
How Depression Affects Families
Caring for a loved one with depression is all about love and grace.
Growing up, I struggled with fear and low self-esteem. I was a child adults admired since I could play by myself for hours. My sensitive character developed at an early age. And it continued to be shaped by my mother.
My mother had a temper and was unpredictable. Sheer terror struck through my body when she would announce it was “cleaning day” and my sister and I were in training.
One morning at the age of eight, I recall running up the stairs and bumping my mother with her scalding hot coffee and spilling it on my head. I felt pain physically but more so internally. She became furious and lashed out at my poor behavior.
I could never do anything right. My worth was based on validation from my parents.
After many years and therapy sessions, I can finally acknowledge the behaviors of my mother were not about me. They weren’t about my siblings. They were her own internal demons.
My mother has been diagnosed with bipolar II (type 2) disorder with severe depression. You might have heard the saying “love the sinner, not the sin.” This is how I see mental illness.
I love my mom, not the irrational behavior of her mental illness.
This takes great awareness as the wounds can be deep and real and raw.
Practical Ways to Support Loved Ones with Depression
So, how do I love my mother well? Here are research-based strategies and practical ways I’ve learned that can help you care for loved ones struggling with depression.
- Recognize depression/mental illness is not a choice.
I, too, struggle with mental illness: anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I did not choose this. It is how I am created. But what is my choice is how I respond. It can feel helpless and frustrating at times.
On occasion, I’m paralyzed in my own mind and body, making me incapable to love and do things I should be doing. This helps me to love my mom well when she misses important moments such as birthday parties and holiday events. I understand her depression is not just a bad day or a bad mood, and it’s not something someone can just “get over.”
- Do not say things like, “It’ll get better,” “You just need to get out of the house,” or “You’ll be fine.”
It’s easy to tell someone these things because you think you’re giving them a solution or a simple way to make them feel better, but these kinds of phrases can come across as insulting, making the individual feel inadequate.
Sometimes, they don’t need a “fix.” What they need is someone to be there with them and to love them. Instead, you could say, “I’m here for you. I believe in you. I believe you are stronger than this, and I believe you’ll get through this. What can I do to help you? What do you think would make you feel better?”
- Extend grace when they push you away.
Sometimes, loved ones struggling with depression push you away before they can bring you closer. I’ve experienced this extensively.
My mom will cut off all communication, saying she is protecting me from words and actions she could not take back that could be hurtful. She will constantly say she feels she is a burden to other people. This causes her to withdraw into isolation and push away people she loves. I would rather have a relationship that is imperfect rather than not having one. Therefore, I continue to let her know I’m still here, but I don’t try to force anything upon her.
- Give yourself the freedom and grace to get frustrated.
Just because someone deals with depression doesn’t mean you have to cater to all of their needs and sacrifice your own. Depressed people need to feel loved and supported, but if it begins to create a negative impact on your life, you’re allowed to acknowledge this and figure out how to show them love and kindness without self-sacrificing.
I have gone through seasons where I tell my mom I need distance to guard my own heart. She is very receptive and understanding. Our own emotions are valid and real. Depression has a ripple effect for you and your loved one.
- Be understanding when they become overwhelmed.
Constant exhaustion is a common side effect of depression. Just getting through the day can be an overwhelming and exhausting experience. There is no amount of sleep that can change this. My mom has left events early and canceled plans last minute. It is sadly one of the side effects of living with the illness.
- Know it’s not about you.
When you have a loved one dealing with depression, it can be difficult to understand what they’re going through. If they need space, remember it is not a reflection of you or your relationship. Don’t blame yourself and wonder how you could do things differently to heal them. Understand their depression is not about you. This makes it easier to extend forgiveness and grace as needed.
- Avoid creating ultimatums, making demands, or using a “tough-love” approach.
Telling someone you’re going to break up with them or not talk to them anymore if they don’t get better is not going to magically cure them of their illness. A “tough-love” approach is not one I recommend. Accept your family and friends as they are and love them through their struggles.
- Try not to compare your experiences with theirs.
This is a huge struggle for me. When someone is going through a rough time, we often want to share our own stories to let them know you can relate with their struggle. However, this minimizes their pain and experience.
If possible, express empathy. The greatest gift you can share is the ability to listen. Don’t try to frame things positively; let them be where they are at. Another balance is not to let negativity spiral. Don’t let them ruminate. Try to move the conversation in a different direction.
- Schedule quality time to spend together.
Offer to spend time with them. I often schedule special events with my mom to let her know I’m here and look forward to spending time with her. Even though she cancels often, I accept this now and keep my expectations realistic.
The important part is to invite them into your life. For example, I asked my mom to dog sit, which gave her purpose and got her out of the house. It was a challenge, but she later told me she appreciated it.
My mom is not broken or defective. There is nothing abnormal about the symptoms of depression. They’re a very normal part of the human experience. We’ve all felt sad, disconnected, isolated, hopeless, helpless, and exhausted. My mom is strong. And my prayer is that both you and I can be equally strong and love others through their mental illness.