When Trudy’s husband was hit with depression, she was overwhelmed by it. All she knew was that her husband, age 45, was a different person. Once lovable and friendly, a man who took pleasure in nature, learning, and joking around with family and friends, he became negative, sad, and withdrawn—and, for the first time ever, called in sick to work one day.
“A depressed person sees the world as an unfriendly, scary, hopeless, negative place,” says Julie Fast, co-author of Get It Done When You’re Depressed: 50 Strategies for Keeping Your Life on Track. “Their language, even their posture, changes. What once gave them pleasure—heading a charity fund-raiser or chatting with fellow parents at their children’s sports games—now seems like a chore. If you’re used to going out with them and having fun, your friend may just sit there and stare, cry for no reason, or become agitated, negative, and irritable,” she says.
What matters most is how long this down mood lasts. “To be diagnosed with depression, your loved one must exhibit the following symptoms for two weeks or more: they must be sad or depressed most of the time or have lost interest in normal activities,” says Eve Wood, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Arizona and author of What Am I Feeling, and What Does It Mean?: A Kit for Self-Growth and Healthy Relationships. In essence, you’ll notice, as Trudy did, that the person has ceased to act like him- or herself.
“Depression is often more obvious if the person is someone you spend time with day to day,” Wood says. “If you notice them withdraw, ignore the phone, or experience changes in sleep habits—they may pace the floor at night or stay in bed through much of the day—there’s a good chance they may be depressed.”
Fast says, “Ask yourself the following three questions to determine if your loved one is truly depressed or just in a passing bad mood.”
- Does the mood fit the experience? In other words, does the person you love get upset or sad over things that don’t make others upset or sad?
- Are the person’s moods difficult to understand? Do these moods seem to occur despite the positive things that happen in the person’s life?
- Do the moods significantly affect the person’s life and relationships? Does the depression interfere with your loved one’s ability to be a parent, friend, or partner, or to succeed at his or her chosen career?
“Steering your friend toward help depends on the nature of your relationship,” Wood says, “as well as on how severe the depression has become. If they’re completely nonfunctional, you may actually have to make a doctor’s appointment and take them.” Otherwise, talk gently about your concerns. “Never try to come across as the expert,” she says, “as in, ‘I know what’s wrong with you: you’re depressed!’ Instead, bring in your own personal experience: ‘My friend/mom/I went through this, and I’m wondering if you might be feeling the same way, too.’”
“Don’t overreact if your friend expresses their most difficult feelings,” Fast says. “They may say something like ‘I’m not sure I can go on like this’ or ‘I’m stupid, fat, and worthless: why was I even born?’ But trying to convince them otherwise won’t help.” They probably know their thoughts are irrational, but depression isn’t rational, and knowing doesn’t change how they feel.
Instead, say something like, ‘It sounds like you’re feeling pretty low. I care about you, and I want to help you feel better. Would you like me to see a doctor with you?’ Tell them, ‘I’m frightened’ or ‘I’m worried about you,’” Wood says. “The best way to help your friend is to listen without judging their feelings, while encouraging them to seek professional help,” says Valerie Whiffen, PhD, professor of psychology at the University of Ottawa, Canada, and author of A Secret Sadness: The Hidden Relationship Patterns That Make Women Depressed.
“Loving a depressed person is draining, so don’t stop caring for yourself as well,” Trudy says. “Know that the illness isn’t your fault, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it on your own. You can’t be your loved one’s
savior, but you can be the link between that person and the help they need.”
Jenny Stamos Kovacs writes about health, nutrition, and well-being for magazines such as Self, Shape, Glamour, Woman’s Day, Fitness, Redbook, Prevention, Women’s Health, and WebMD. Visit her website at