How can you help when a loved one has depression?

Depression has recently been referred to as the killer with a smile, such as in the cases of celebrity suicides, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

Three weeks ago, I attended the funeral of a friend’s husband. He left this world by his own actions. His friends all said that he was “the nicest guy you’ve ever met”.

Three months ago, a different friend’s brother-in-law ended his own life.

In both cases, colleagues, close friends and family members reported they "didn't see it coming" and have been left to wonder "How could I have missed this?" and "What should I have seen or done to lift him from such despair?"

Today, CBS Sunday Morning aired a segment on a teenager, a super achiever by all measures; yet a young woman with a secret journal filled with self-loathing messages. Alexandra Valoras threw herself off of a bridge in Grafton, Massachusetts. In the diaries found near her body were these last words,  Don’t blame yourselves for not seeing warning signs. I hid for a reason. I didn’t want you to know how deep in my own mess I was. So it wasn’t anyone’s lack of perception.”

Depression masquerades behind forced smiles and sucks joy from daily existence, often substituting crippling anxiety. It skews mental processing and perspective – on matters of the past, the present and for the foreseeable future. 

Friends and family MUST understand the loved one is not the source of the depression. UNRELENTING DEPRESSION IS AN ILLNESS. A person cannot think themselves well. It deprives the person of the usual feelings, reactions or emotional responses from life events which would normally be sources of pleasure, peace, motivation and ambition.

Depression is exhausting; increasing the need for sleep, if only as a means of escape. Masking the feelings that come with depression requires energy. It becomes difficult to engage with close friends and family.  Because of perceived shame or despair, a person feels they cannot confide to anyone. They feel alone, even in the presence of others and often wear a smile. Isolation breeds hopelessness, anxiety and fear that there is no way out. Similar to a person trapped on an upper floor of a building engulfed in fire, the hopeless contemplate a way out of their misery.

If you suspect trouble lurks behind a loved one’s smile – ASK. Ask them to share with you what is going on with them. Acknowledge that you know them to be a person with a lot of inner strength and a loving nature and that you get the feeling that all is not well with them. Don’t consider it prying, consider it an act of love. Give your undivided attention to them, let them know they are seen and not alone.

I’m no authority on the subject of depression, but I do know this. It was a Thursday evening in Northampton, Massachusetts in 2001. I was working in a quaint interior design store. Around the dinner hours, it was common for people to amble the streets of this quaint college town - home of Smith College. One evening, a man walked into the shop. We struck up a conversation - my Southern accent often the segway. We chatted about one thing or the other for at least thirty minutes. He seemed to enjoy our time together, he seemed in no hurry to be anywhere else. As he departed he expressed his enjoyment of our time together. I expressed mine as well.

Flash forward several years. I was looking for a professional printer for the verse cards that accompany my line of heart jewelry. The proprietor seemed familiar and he asked if I had ever worked in a little shop in Northampton, twenty miles further north. I said, “yes I used to, why?” He revealed that a few years earlier he had come into my shop while contemplating his own suicide. He said, “Jean, our conversation that evening saved my life.”

Perhaps Rachel Naomi Remen says it best in her bestselling book, Kitchen Table Wisdom -- 
"I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it."

Defuse depression. Talk about the prevalence of depression around the dinner table, in your book clubs, with family, friends and acquaintances. Depression isn't something to be ashamed of, rather it's something to fight - a fight that may save a life.  It could be your own.



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