How to Help Someone with Major Depressive Disorder

Abby Ruben, Licensed Mental Health Counselor September 28, 2021

Major depressive disorder is serious, but there are more ways than ever to manage it. Therapy and loved ones can help profoundly, it just takes the right awareness and action to get there.

Major depressive disorder is serious, but there are more ways than ever to manage it. Therapy and loved ones can help profoundly, it just takes the right awareness and action to get there.

Telling someone with major depressive disorder (MDD) to be grateful for what they have, is akin to telling someone with anxiety to calm down. It does not help and can be downright harmful. While one can assume these sentiments come with positive intentions, it’s invalidating and frustrating for everyone involved. According to the Anxiety & Depression Association of America, around 16.1 million adult Americans experience MDD, and all the information about it can be overwhelming. We offer ways to support someone who is struggling, and information for those who are thinking about pursuing therapy. 

What Is Major Depressive Disorder?

Firstly, it is important to understand what you are dealing with. Despite the media’s depictions, MDD is not synonymous with transient feelings of intense sadness. It’s not “just a bad mood,” or something someone can simply “snap out of.” 

MDD is a complex mental health condition that ranges in severity, and the symptoms must be present for at least two weeks to be diagnosed. Negative beliefs about the future, negative views about the world, and negative views about oneself make what experts call, “Beck’s cognitive triad of depression.” Translation: people struggling with MDD get bogged down with convincingly distorted, all-encompassing negative thoughts.

What Are the Symptoms of Major Depressive Disorder?

Irritability, anxiety, apathy, low motivation, difficulty focusing, lack of pleasure, changes in sexual functioning, and sleeping or eating too much or too little are all hallmark signs of MDD. The way these appear varies with each person. We all cope differently, and no one reacts to stressors the same way. 

How to Help Someone Who Has a Major Depressive Disorder Diagnosis 

You cannot “fix” anyone, but you can provide meaningful support. Here’s how to help someone with MDD:

1. Offer specific support. When someone says, “let me know if you need something,” it can be extremely difficult to know what that specifically means or how to follow up. This is especially true if you are feeling like a burden—a common experience for those battling MDD. Instead, try offering to bring your loved one a favorite meal, help with laundry, make a follow-up call, or anything else that shows you care about them. Also, it can be hard to identify meaningful ways to support, so providing specific suggestions makes help even more accessible.

2. Reach out in low-pressure ways. Social isolation is another common manifestation of MDD. Over time, many people get tired of having invitations rebuffed, so they stop reaching out. This reinforces negative self-perceptions, which can perpetuate the tendency to remain isolated. Instead, let your loved one know that you are thinking about them and that you are available whenever they are ready. Checking in periodically reinforces the message, which can also be helpful.

3. Send a thoughtful message. A quick “hey, I love you, and I’m so happy to have you in my life,” or a “thinking-of-you” text can go a long way. While in the thick of depressive thoughts, receiving unsolicited positive sentiments combats the notion that one is unlovable or worthless. Make the reach out as personable as possible. For some, a call instead of text could mean the world to them. Even an in-person, “hey, how’s it going,” could change their day for the better. 

4. Prioritize your own well-being. While this may seem counterintuitive, it’s a critical foundation for providing sustainable support and engagement. If you are sacrificing your well-being to support a loved one, resentment can rapidly grow, especially if the person continues to struggle. Try to be mindful of this early on. 

5. Do not personalize their depression. Their depression is not your fault. Their depression does not mean anything about how important you are. Their depression simply means they are sick and need treatment, just like any other medical condition. If you are routinely helping someone with symptoms of MDD, remember to check in with yourself too. Self-care is not just for people that are struggling with their emotions—it’s for all of us. 

6. Encourage exploration of treatment options. This can include medication and therapy. Sharing (ideally with permission) about your firsthand experiences in therapy or gently probing about their perceptions of therapy, can open the door to the help they need. Stigma, feeling like you are stuck, and self-judgment often present as barriers to accessing care. If you have the bandwidth, connecting a loved one to the right treatment providers can be instrumental to their healing. Remember, do not force this—check to see if they are open to assistance.

7. Don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Giving away possessions, talking about death, abusing substances, and acting recklessly are a few signs of suicidal tendencies. Frequently, people are (understandably) uncomfortable talking about suicidal thoughts. A common fear for those that are trying to help, is that you are introducing or reinforcing these thoughts just by bringing the issue up. However, directly asking, “are you having any thoughts of hurting yourself?”—can be a relief for those who are struggling. It shows someone cares. This could open doors to sharing shameful or painful thoughts and feelings, but it will start the healing. 

If someone confides in you about suicidal thoughts, help connect them to resources. If they do not have current treatment providers, texting “HOME” to 741741 is an easy, effective way to access emergency care. Accompanying a loved one to a local ER is another way to connect to care in moments of crisis.

8. Be patient and don’t lose hope. Like anything else, healing is not linear. There is no “one-size-fits-all” timeframe. Bearing witness to someone’s struggles can be grueling, especially when it seems like they are not trying to improve. Remember that the person struggling wants nothing more than to feel better, even if it does not seem to be true. Depression is conniving and convincing, but the person you love is still there at their core.

Humantold understands that seeking help with MDD is not easy, but it is a little easier with someone on your side. Seeking therapy and professional assistance can bring some peace of mind with the assurance that you have made positive steps toward getting better. Compassion and communication are the themes to keep in mind as you navigate these challenges. 

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