I’ve had a lot of personal experience with this one. I love someone, a close family member, who struggles mightily with Bipolar Disorder Type I. And two other family members have suffered with serious depression, as well.
Full disclosure: there’ve been times when I’ve done a lousy job helping and supporting my beloveds. You’d think that, since I’m trained as a psychologist, I’d always to a perfect job.
But when it’s someone you love, the game changes. Which has taught me a lot about what works.
And what doesn’t.
When someone’s depressed, she can have trouble with, or be, any or all of the following:
- a space-cadet,
- sleeping a lot or not enough,
- distorted thinking,
- staying focused,
- remembering things,
- making decisions.
Depression and bipolar disorder are complex …
… lots of things don’t work when someone you love is depressed.
Stop Doing These Things
1. Stop “doing” so much.
Some people get very busy doing things when they’re anxious or scared. But that busyness — that need to “fix” — can be more about what you need, than about what your person needs.
When someone is depressed, too much doing feels overwhelming. Instead of getting way too busy because that’s what you need to feel better, pay attention to what your person needs.
Focus on doing the things that can be useful for her (keep on reading).
2. Don’t minimize what’s happening.
It’s real, it might be serious, and yes … there’s plenty of help to be found.
3. Don’t let your fear stop you from helping.
Don’t pretend that everything’s all right if it isn’t. You’re probably feeling scared. Serious depression can be terrifying for many people. That’s OK. Reach out, ask for help.
4. Don’t judge or shame your friend, family member, or significant whomever.
And believe me, their radar is on full-alert for shame. They can already feel so ashamed that it takes basically nothing to trigger it. (Which triggers more depression.)
Read through this post, and begin taking compassionate mindful action, with the intention of helping them.
5. Don’t be thinking she can think the same way you can think.
(Or, the same way she thinks when she’s not depressed.)
When someone’s depressed, the brain circuitry goes a bit haywire. Cognitive funkiness is a good friend of depression and bipolar disorder.
For instance, I had a 15-minute-long text conversation with my person about should I/should I not take a shower. There were many factors to consider, and a decision to be made.
Figuring out what’s going on is hard. Confusion about very simple basic things is often present. Making decisions is hard.
6. Don’t accept the family doctor or PA as the treatment specialist.
He or she almost never has the training or experience necessary to deal with the complexities of depression or bipolar disorder. Instead, work with a trained professional psychotherapist and psychiatrist. Hopefully, the family doctor can recommend a good professional.
So what’s the good news? There are plenty of things that do help.
Start Doing These Things
1. Get smart.
Learn as much as you can about what’s going on. Understand the basics of depression or bipolar disorder.
And then, critically important, make sure you understand how it feels for your loved one.
Having a basic general understanding of the issue is important. Understanding how it feels for your person is even more important.
If your loved one has a psychotherapist, ask if it’s OK for the two of you to go a couple of sessions together. Normal ways of communicating just don’t always work when someone’s depressed.
If you live out-of-state, you can still attend a session via the modern miracles of technology, using video conferencing software (like Skype).
The more you understand, the better you can help.
The more your person feels heard and understood, the more you’re helping.
2. Help your person get help.
If your BFF doesn’t have a therapist, this is one way that doing something is actually useful for him. Help him find a good therapist.
Other places to find help:
- a local support group, through a national organization (see Resources below);
- a private support group, facilitated by a trained mental health professional — google depression or bipolar support group + your person’s city;
- a church or synagogue or sangha — but only if your person is being heard, held with compassion, and not shamed or told to just get over it.
If you’re new to all of this, you may have to ask for help, as well. It’s OK. There are support groups for family members and loved ones, as well. When you show the strength in your own vulnerability, you show your loved one how to it, too.
3. Know the crisis hot line phone #s in your loved one’s location.
Make sure you’ve got them in your contact list, and that she’s put them in her phone’s contact list. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is: 1-800-273-8255. Most cities also have 24/7 crisis lines.
4. Remind yourself a billion times: It isn’t personal.
While someone is in the fog of a depressive episode, he might not always be the lovey-dovey you’re used to. It isn’t personal.
Unless you’re the Dalai Lama, your own stuff will be triggered. You will have challenging emotional reactions and responses. It’s your job to hold onto them, and do some of your own processing work.
Because it’s exactly the wrong time to get into all of your own issues about the relationship. That time 6 months ago when s/he said that? No. Why? See #4 above.
5. Cultivate the saintly virtue of patience.
Honestly? Patience hasn’t always been my best thing. For instance, just the other day, in the middle of a crazy busy work project, there was the above-mentioned crisis about whether or not she should take a shower.
15 minutes about should I/should I not take a shower?? Take the shower. Don’t take the shower. Get over yourself, for heaven’s sakes! I don’t have time for this … none of these would’ve been helpful responses.
Getting my project finished right that minute wasn’t the most important thing. Is my stuff being triggered? Is my ego offended? It’s my job to hold onto my stuff. And be patient.
6. Remind yourself that you’re not Mother Teresa or Amma.
Sometimes, the tired cliche of putting on your own oxygen mask first is helpful.
If I’m so depleted from my own challenges on a given day, if it’s too late for me to talk without being bitchy, I don’t.
Once in a while, not talking is the most loving choice. Instead, send a quick text, re-assuring your person that you love her, let her know that you’re too tired to be reasonable (so she’s not confused), and that you’ll be good as gold in the morning.
7. Create more space.
Sometimes it’s possible to hold onto the bitchy potential, even when I’m tired. I’ve learned that I can find a little more space for heart-centered listening.
This passage, from Thich Nhat Hanh’s sweet little book, “The Mindfulness Survival Kit: Five Essential Practices,” helps a lot:
When you practice compassionate listening, it’s important to remember that you listen with only one purpose, and that is to help the other person to suffer less. You give the other person a chance to say what is in his heart. Even if the other person says something harsh, provocative, or incorrect, you still continue to listen with compassion.
You’re able to do that because as you sit and listen you are practicing mindfulness of compassion. During the whole time of listening, you practice mindful breathing and remind yourself, ‘I am listening to him with only one purpose, to give him a chance to empty his heart and to suffer less. I may be the first person who has listened to him like this.’
If you can maintain this mindfulness of compassion alive in your heart during the time of listening, then you’re protected by the energy of compassion, and what the other person says won’t touch off the energy of irritation and anger in you. In that way, you can listen for an hour or more, and the quality of your listening will help the other person to suffer less.
Happiness & Depression: How to Help Someone You Love
Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance Love this site! Lots of fantastic, creative, free ideas and resources, including a daily mood log that’s the best I’ve ever seen.
National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Lots of educational info and resources, including local, free support groups in many cities across the US.
National Institute of Mental Health The largest scientific organization in the world focusing on mental illness issues.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255