Originally published: June 2019
Edited and republished: Aug 2021
We are almost over with summer holidays. Many of us are enjoying ourselves.
Many of us are not.
It's time to look around us.
Perhaps you’ve noticed that the neighbor you used to chat with has become more withdrawn, sullen or sad, and barely acknowledges you these days. Or maybe it’s a friend or a family member who seems depressed. What do you do, and what do you say?
For most of us, the first mistake we make is that we assume we’ve done something wrong. We review our behavior for evidence that we’ve caused a problem. Sometimes we become defensive and give back as good as we’re getting just to show that we’re unaffected by the bad vibes coming from the other person. And pretty soon that nice relationship we had with our neighbor or friend is permanently soured, or even broken beyond repair. If it’s a family member who’s behaving this way, the relationship may not break, but it can become strained, stressful and an enormous worry.
So what do you do if a neighbor, friend or family member starts behaving very differently, and is clearly unhappy? People who are suffering from psychological problems are often not easy to talk to: they can be withdrawn, unresponsive, irritable and negative. Here are some do’s and don’t to make the process easier.
Don’t Get Defensive
Easy to say, but hard to do especially when someone who’s depressed or angry is being critical of you. But generally people who have psychological issues are reacting primarily to internal issues. So perhaps you did do something that upset them, but the intense degree of upset, and the difficulty in resolving the issue is a result of what’s going on inside them. So try to listen and understand, rather than attack or defend.
Don’t Try To Fix Their Problem
This sounds counter-intuitive: after all, the reason you’re talking to them is to try to fix them. But your role with someone who’s suffering psychologically is similar to that of a life preserver helping someone adrift in the ocean: It keeps the person afloat, but it’s still up to them to swim for the shore. Your presence, your care will help the person get through the day, but you will never singlehandedly rescue them.
It’s important to keep this in mind because your impulse will be to try to make them feel better. You’ll want to point out all the good things in their life, show how their problems aren’t really so bad, and encourage them to cheer up. Unfortunately, that feels very alien (especially to a depressed individual) and makes them feel that you really don’t understand them at all. If you remember that you can’t make them feel better, and it’s not your job to make them feel better, that will free you up to just listen and understand.
Listen and Understand
Depressed people in particular feel alienated, isolated, and a burden to others. Their depression is often caused by a feeling of isolation, but their sadness causes them to retreat from interactions, thus making them more isolated, and further increasing the depression. Having someone simply show interest, listen, and do their very best to understand makes a depressed person feel more connected.
It’s important to use phrases like “Tell me more about how you’re feeling” or “What is it that makes you feel the worst?” or “Can you help me understand what it feels like for you now?” Avoid judgement and cajoling: “You shouldn’t feel so bad” or “Look at all the good things in your life” or “Why can’t you just feel happier?”
Ask About Suicide
Many people are afraid to ask “Have you thought about killing yourself?” or the softer version, “Do you sometimes wish you weren’t alive?” They fear this will put an idea into the other person’s head, and they’ll be responsible for the suicide that then occurs. The truth is that even people who are far, far from suicidal have had the thought cross their mind. No one ever becomes suicidal because they were asked about their intentions.
Sometimes it’s an enormous relief to be able to admit to these thoughts. Depressed people worry terribly about being a burden to others, and to have someone show interest in their darkest thoughts is a reassurance that the listener can tolerate talking of suicide.
Respect Their Confidentiality — Up To A Point
Depressed people need to feel they can trust you. You may feel that other people need to know what’s going on, but it’s important to get the depressed individual’s permission first. However, if they’re seriously considering suicide, your role is to persuade them to seek help, and if necessary, to break confidentiality and bring help to them.
Psychotherapy is very effective: 80% of people who seek therapy do better than the average person who does not. People with psychological problems can find it difficult to go see a therapist because their suffering saps their energy. Physically helping them to find a therapist and getting them to the sessions can be one of the most helpful things you can do.
To get in touch with Tim: