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How to support a loved one with depression or anxiety

If you suspect a friend or family member is experiencing depression or anxiety, it can be hard to know what to do. You want to offer your support, but are unsure what to say. Lauren Liverman, LCSW, a Piedmont oncology social worker, shares tips for approaching conversations with loved ones and how to offer your support. 

“It’s been a really stressful few years for many people,” says Liverman. “People have experienced social isolation, medical trauma and seeing loved ones get sick. This has been a tough season for a lot of people.”

What to say to a loved one with depression or anxiety

“Be very gentle and approach them with compassion and support,” says Liverman.

She suggests starting a conversation by saying something like:

  • I’ve noticed you haven’t seemed like yourself lately. How are you feeling?

  • Things seem sort of off lately. How are you doing?

You could also ask them directly if they feel like they’re experiencing depression or anxiety.

If they acknowledge they’re struggling, Liverman suggests saying:

  • It’s OK that you’re feeling overwhelmed. You’ve had a lot going on in your life lately.

  • What can I do that would be helpful?

  • Let’s have lunch, go for a walk or watch a movie together.

“Depression or anxiety can cause a person to feel isolated,” she says. “It’s so important that they spend quality time with people who make them feel safe and cared for.”

What not to say to a loved one with depression or anxiety

“It’s helpful to normalize that we all go through tough times and you can acknowledge experiences you’ve had,” says Liverman. “But avoid going into great detail about your own mental health experiences. Keep the focus on them.”

Also, avoid minimizing their experience by saying things like, “But your life is so great. Why would you be depressed?”

“It doesn’t matter what their life looks like on the outside,” she says. “Sometimes anxiety or depression is chemically organic in nature—it doesn’t have to be tied to something going on in a person’s life. Avoid making assumptions.”

Destigmatizing mental health care

Liverman says it’s important to destigmatize mental health care, especially if you have a loved one with mental health concerns.

“We’re not responsible for fixing somebody’s depression or anxiety, but we can encourage and support them in getting care,” says Liverman. “It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about health and wellness from the neck up or neck down. It’s all about taking care of ourselves. We can do a better job of letting people know that it’s OK not to be OK.” 

Here are some potential conversation starters:

  • It’s OK that you’re not OK. Let’s get you some support.

  • We all face unfamiliar situations where we don’t yet have the tools to cope with them.

  • I want to be here for you, but I’m not a mental health professional. Would you like to research counselors together?

Setting boundaries with family and friends

Setting boundaries is also a crucial part of supporting a loved one with depression or anxiety.

“You can get burnt out if you have someone constantly relying on you,” says Liverman. “You don’t want to push people away, but you can gently tell them that you’re not the best person to give them advice.”

She suggests setting a gentle boundary by saying things like:

  • I love you and care about you. I’m glad to be able to support you, but I’m not the best person to help you troubleshoot this situation. Would you like me to help you research counselors?

  • I’m not going to be available during this time [such as in the middle of the night]. If you need support at that time, I encourage you to reach out to another resource, like a crisis hotline.  

What to do if a loved one is suicidal

If a loved one expresses thoughts about hurting themselves or others, take the comment seriously and make sure they aren’t left alone, says Liverman.

“If you have a loved one who is at that level of distress, offering to take them to get evaluated at the emergency department is important,” she says. “If you’re not the closest person in their life, find out if they have a partner or adult child who would be able to get them help.”

If you think they could be an immediate danger to themselves or others, call 911 or a national crisis hotline, such as:

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

  • SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357)

  • NAMI Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI or text “NAMI” to 741741

“The people who work these hotlines have crisis intervention training,” she says. “They can help stabilize your loved one and make recommendations for follow-up care.”

Remember, your support matters and can make a difference. You don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to be there.

“It’s a scary and lonely feeling for the person who is suffering,” says Liverman. “They may not want it, but the one thing they need is support. To know that someone cares about them and their mental health is important.”

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