Drawing two women sitting on a pink couch, one in fetal position with her face against the couch, the other trying to comfort her.
Illustration: Juta

How to Support a Loved One Going Through Depression

Being there for someone who’s not OK can be extremely taxing. Here's how not to lose yourself in the process.
Vincenzo Ligresti
Milan, IT
illustrated by Juta

This article originally appeared on VICE Italy.

You won’t get a notification when someone you love has entered an abyss of emptiness. There are no alerts for depression. And no matter how hard you try, sheer willpower will not be enough to get them through it. There'll be times, especially in the early stages, when you’ll feel helpless and wonder: “What should I do now?”, “Can I be useful?” or “What if I get sucked in, too?”


Unfortunately, there are no surefire solutions for staying close to someone with depression. “Every person is different, every story is different, every situation is different,” says Milan-based clinical psychologist Carola Moretti, who holds training courses for relatives of people with mood disorders. “But there are guidelines we can follow.”

People often say they’re feeling depressed in everyday conversations, but usually, that doesn’t mean they’re experiencing a depressive disorder. “On some days or at certain times of the day, our mood is worse than usual,” says Moretti. “This can happen as a result of a traumatic event – a rejection, a break-up – or even for no reason at all.”

According to our current diagnostic standards, a depressive disorder occurs when someone experiences at least five official symptoms - ranging from loss of pleasure to fatigue - over a prolonged period of time. These symptoms must impact the person’s mood, sleep patterns, appetite, interests and social life to the point they can’t function normally.

If your loved one fits this criteria, it’s time to take action. “One of the key things you should insist on, is dispelling the idea that they can cope on their own,” says Moretti. “Or that their depression is simply due to their character flaws, which they may mistakenly believe.” Instead, tell them depression is a disorder to do with brain chemistry, and that’s why intervention is necessary.


If the person isn’t comfortable with therapy, you can try to support them in many other ways. You can offer to go with them to their first appointment, make a list of therapists to choose from, or even wait outside during a session. But it’s important not to force it - each person has their own pace.

Besides, seeking therapy is a long process. It’s vital your loved one finds someone they’re comfortable with - and that might not happen on the first try. If things don’t work out, be prepared to encourage them over and over again. Most people will see a psychologist first, but “it’s good to remember that psychiatrists deal with mood disorders such as depression, too,” Moretti adds. ‘Treatments exist and work.”

Finding the right words to communicate with someone with depression can be tricky. When someone is facing a single depressive episode, words of encouragement can be helpful. But if they have a mood disorder, trying to cheer them up could be counterproductive. “A depressed person might look around and think, 'My parents are great, my friends and partner are wonderful and yet I can't be happy'," says Moretti.

You should refrain from asking them to be strong, comparing them to other people, or telling them they’ve all they need to be happy. Often, these are exactly the things your loved one is telling themselves in order to invalidate their feelings or further their spiral of self-hate.


Telling them you’re there if they need you won't always be effective either, because people with depression often struggle to reach out. Instead, you should talk to them from a place of compassion, regularly check in with them, ask them to share their thoughts and remind them that none of this is their fault and that a better future is possible. You can ask if there’s anything you can do for them – even in practical terms, like helping them clean or buy groceries.

Everyone has their own ways. Some people need space, some like physical contact and others need a bit of both. But Moretti thinks physical proximity to a person experiencing depression can’t hurt. Calling just to drop by, being in the same room (even in silence), letting the other person know that their pain is understood – these are all small gestures that can make a difference.

Moretti believes most people underestimate the impact of encouraging someone to follow a healthy lifestyle, in addition to therapy. “Exercise, even just half an hour a day, works wonders in some situations,” she says. “That should be combined with a healthy diet and avoiding junk food.” 

Of course, this can be incredibly hard for someone experiencing depression, but that’s exactly where your support can make a difference. This is not a real, long-term solution, of course, but it can gradually help them stop neglecting themselves; a great first step to recovery.


If a loved one – whether an adult or a teenager – brings up suicide, you should never underestimate the issue. They’ve decided to talk about it, that means they’re taking a first step to seek help from those they trust. 

If they haven’t brought it up, but you suspect they’re having suicidal thoughts, it’s better to directly ask them: “Do you have suicidal thoughts?”, “Why do you think about death?”, “Do you really sometimes want to do it?” Studies actually show that broaching the subject can greatly reduce the risk of them putting their ideas into practice. However suicidal thoughts are first mentioned, they’re a clear sign that a professional needs to be involved as soon as possible.

It’s important to keep checking in with someone who’s expressed suicidal ideations, because the timing of an attempt can sometimes seem counterintuitive. “Often, when a person who has depression is at their lowest, they’re less likely to commit suicide,” Moretti says. “This is because they’re unable to take on any kind of project; even a suicide attempt – which involves energy, planning and forethought – becomes difficult.”

People are more likely to take their life during a recovery phase - when their mood seems to have picked up a little, but the person's despair is still very deep. This is why you must be extremely careful and never let your guard down, especially during the early stages of therapy.

Being close to a person with depression is obviously a tough balancing act. You might be overcome by feelings of helplessness and sadness by extension. In some moments, your loved one could verbally attack you and target your vulnerabilities – but you must remember it’s not really them talking. 

Taking care of yourself while supporting them is crucial. “If you’re not energetic, you cannot give energy to those around you,” says Moretti. Recharging, going to the gym, giving yourself space or getting away for a while is fundamental.” That doesn’t make you selfish or mean that you’re abandoning the other person – it only helps you help them better.