IDEAS FOR SUPPORTING SOMEONE WITH DEPRESSION
Dee Chadwick
17 Oct 2021
On World Mental Health Day, I am writing this as a follow up to Charlotte’s piece on depression and the possibility of using exercise to help overcome this. I am looking into how, as a friend or family member, we can offer support through exercise – and the best ways of offering this, or any, support.

FIRSTLY - SUPPORTING THE SUPPORTER

I am extracting and adapting the following information from a blog posted in January 2019 -  

With any supporting role, it is important that the carer (as in listener and supporter as well as an actual caring role) has support. As a counsellor, one of the things that is stressed during training is that you must have a network of support set up, as it can be emotionally difficult ‘being there’ for people. My immediate support setup includes a cuppa, a hot bath, and rather loud music; I can then move on to the support of a supervisor.

It can be far too easy to keep avoiding seeing a person who is struggling. We avoid making any contact until the once small molehill becomes a huge mountain. Maybe we are concerned that we will be called upon to do more than we feel that we want to do, or are able to do. Maybe we are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing … so we say or do nothing.

It is a good idea to check things out, especially if you are new to the kind of situation you would be entering. OK, you could probably use a Google search, but I feel that it is better to get the your friend or family member’s spin on things, as I am a great believer in consideration of the individual rather than the medical label which has been affixed to them.  Alternatively think of times when friends have been there for you – and when these were helpful and supportive or not. It can be the over and above caring actions that stand out, or simply the little things that show that you care and think of them.

When ‘being there’, your main role is not as a fixer, unless your ideas are specifically asked for. Neither is your role as a judge around the whys and wherefores of how things are being handled or progress is being made – or not. These can both be human tendencies, but they need to be gently set aside, maybe with some tongue biting thrown in for good measure! The aim is not to take over, or go into information overload, rather to simply be there whilst the other person gets on with solving their problem, surviving a hard time, getting better, whatever.

Although providing a little light relief may be what is called for at times, cheering up your friend may not always be appropriate. We can sometimes feel a need to do this, as we find it difficult to see someone that we care for having a difficult time.

BEGINNING WITH THAT EXERCISE

As Charlotte explained, https://deechadwick.co.uk/blog/aerobic-exercise-treatment-depression  ‘Exercise works not only to lower the chances of an individual getting an illness, but can also lessen or eliminate illnesses .... there is a connection between patients’ increased aerobic exercise and decreasing levels of depression, as well as decreases in recurrent depression/symptoms of depression... especially over a longer period of time with less chance of relapse, despite no longer following the treatment.’

For many suffering with depression, this can be a huge step to take – that first step on the road to exercising. Many are cut off, or cut themselves off because of their depression, with loneliness adding to the symptoms they experience. The help and support of a trusted family member or friend can make this step easier to take. However, this support must be offered with great sensitivity. OK, for some, the direct approach of – get your coat on, we’re going out for a walk - may work, whilst for many it will not. Instead, it could well lead to the disappearing of that last bit of control that was being so desperately hung on to. You may therefore have to spend some visits simply sharing the space – sitting without speaking – just being there before you gradually, gently move on from this.

There are several alternative approaches that can be used. For most, it is probably best carried out face to face as a phone call or text allows for ‘reasons’ to be thought of before the event was due to happen, for why it shouldn’t. Then again, for others, they may be happier to be given that time to mentally prepare for what is being proposed. It can be down to trying both to see which is appropriate for your friend.

If mobility is a problem, either long-term or due to the overwhelming cloud of depression, music can be used. Check out if your choice is ok, or would they like to suggest some music. Then begin to move arms, shoulders, necks whilst still seated. If the person you are supporting is of a certain age, you may like to introduce the good old hand jive as a starting point. This can lead to standing and moving to the music. You can either follow the lead of the person you are supporting or lead by example then holding out a hand to include the friend. Even better if the music is something for which singing along is appropriate. Another add in to getting those happy hormones up and running.

Then there is an amble round the garden, round the block, even going hand in hand or arm in arm if appropriate as a form of both physical and emotional support. Support that may need to be silent - and this really can be golden at times – again, taking your cue from the other person, though you could gently point out things such as particular flowers and their colours or scents, the feel of the wind on the skin. Just don’t feel it necessary to run a constant commentary. Getting out in the air, especially in nature is a really positive step, but may not initially be a long one. Be prepared for that.

Turn the happening back on yourself – thanking them for coming out with you – that you enjoyed their company and getting out and about. Such comments can really serve to boost a flagging feeling of self-worth, so long as you don’t go OTT with them. Sow the seeds for this to happen again, including a day and time rather than it being some airy fairy unspecified event.

You could get round to suggesting going to a local exercise class, an aquafit class joining a local walking group – saying that you would appreciate the company for this. You may well meet with resistance to this initially. Don’t put on too much pressure, rather, re-introduce this as a possibility at a future date.

Both the exercise and the companionship offer positive support, whilst remembering some -

SUGGESTED DO’s & DON’Ts

Don’t pile on too much information either verbally or written. When emotions are raw it can be hard to take this in.

Don’t make decisions on their behalf as this takes control from them and lack of control can add to distress. They are not your decisions to make.

Don’t assume that what would work for you in similar situations will work for your friend. It’s usually best to ask, to check out what are their priorities.

Don’t question their decisions. Maybe float alternatives that may not have been considered but keep your personal choices out of the process. They are not your decisions to make.

Don’t compare with their past or future. Resist the temptation to say things such as ‘You have coped with much worse’ as whatever happened is in the past and things, circumstances, the person have changed.

Don’t endeavour to look on the bright side – for example following a miscarriage by assuring them that at least they know that they can become pregnant. They will almost certainly do a mental add on to this – and my body is well able to miscarry.

Do switch off your phone!

Do accept whatever your friend is feeling. Being ok with a friend being sad isn’t easy, so do be prepared for this.

Do accept that chances are you will not be able to make things alright for your friend. You are there to be with them through a bad time rather than to make everything better.

Do acknowledge how they are feeling – phrases such as ‘I know that you are struggling at present. I’m here for you’ come across as supportive without being patronising.

Do remember that sadness is ‘normal’ and that you too may also feel your friend’s sadness and be affected by it.

Do acknowledge to them that you are unable to make their problems go away, no matter how much you may wish that you could!

Do suggest something such as a walk or maybe sitting out in the garden if appropriate.

Do remember that you are not there as a rescuer. You are there to allow your friend to be what they need to be, do what they need to do, feel what they need to feel at that moment in time.

IF YOU CAN’T GET TO BE THERE IN PERSON…

These days, we have no excuse for not contacting people. We can message, text, email; better still phone, Skype or Facetime. When a friend of mine was really struggling, but we couldn’t meet up, I messaged every day, but would often remind her that I was not expecting a reply. I didn’t want her to feel pressurised into replying, I offered help when I felt it to be appropriate, having to trust that she knew me well enough to know that such offers were not empty words. I simply wanted her to know that I was thinking about her and was sending my love to her. When she was able to communicate, the same ‘rules’ applied as for when holding space on a face to face basis. On occasion she would ask for suggestions. I sent them but also sought advice from those more in the know about her problems in order to ensure I wasn’t just going with what I would have done. I checked with her that it was ok for me to do this so that I wasn’t taking control of the situation away from her.

I listened, I assured her that her feelings were natural and normal. I assured her that she was doing a great job when she began beating herself up. I always ensured that the door was open for us to meet up if that was what she wanted. She needed to retain control of this when in the middle of a situation over which she was struggling to have much control.

SUNSHINE BOXES

If you don’t live near to someone who is having a difficult time, or if you simply want to let them know that you care and are thinking about them, you could send them a box of sunshine. You can buy them ready made from Etsy, but so much better to make up one of your own.

You simply buy little things that you know will amuse, please, show that you care – things specifically appropriate for the person in mind. You can include as many gifts as you choose, but a week of gifts is often appropriate. I sent one recently to a friend who has been having a rough time. I know that she loves hot chocolate, so a tin of this, a lovely mug to drink it from, hand cream, body lotion, a plaque reminding her to relax etc. Carefully chosen and individually wrapped. The note I included explained that she had received the box because I care and would she please open one gift a day. It was lovely to get a message and a picture of what she had just opened. A reason for us to continue communicating and a subject matter to allow for the opening of a conversation when this may not always be easy.

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