How to be a good ally to loved ones fighting depression
Depression can be hard on more than just the person fighting it: partners, family and friends can all be affected. My own journey with mental health has involved many days of being guilty and ashamed of the toll it has taken on my loved ones, in particular my partner and my parents. It took me many years to understand that everyone needs help at some point or the other; that it is not shameful to ask for help.
But apart from my own hesitations in asking for help, another barrier to receiving help was the lack of knowledge about what does and does not work. Mental health as a topic is only beginning to truly be understood, and there is much that people don’t know. As a result of this gap in knowledge, on many occasions, loved ones ended up doing things that harmed instead of helped. Over time, I had to learn to insistently push back and defend myself against well-meaning, but poorly designed efforts to help.
It is to close some of this knowledge gap that I am writing this short guide on how to be an ally to someone fighting depression. If you are here because you are suffering yourself, I hope this will be an easy article to send to loved ones to help them understand what to do. If you are the loved one of someone suffering, this is for you. Thank you for your interest. It shows that you care, and if that care goes into learning something about what your loved one is facing, you will take a big step towards truly helping them. I have divided the sections into four levels: Beginner, Novice, Intermediate and Expert, so there are tips for each stage of knowledge.
But before we get into all that, I want to point out: don’t forget your own self-care. The suffering of a loved one can feel urgent and can take over your life, but none of it should come at the cost of you; not even your loved one wants that. So be gentle with yourself, do what you can, and respect and reward yourself. At the end of the day, recovery is in the hands of the person suffering; you are just helping out, and every little bit counts.
No one can cure someone else, so don’t place that burden upon yourself. Expect frustrations and relapses, and be kind to yourself when they happen, because they can be really rough on you. I hope this helps!
Beginners: Completely discard the ‘tough love’
When I first told my parents that I was suffering from depression, their reaction was something that people with mental health struggles often face: there was a lot of denial, incomprehension, and fear. It took them a very long time to accept that this was a new reality that they had not encountered. As a result, they made many mistakes in those early days. Most of those mistakes fall under the category of ‘tough love’.
For more everyday forms of sadness, we often use a bit of ‘tough love’ on ourselves to ‘shake off’ the negative feelings and get going again. Many things that people with depression do also seem like they can be addressed by tough love: difficulty getting out of bed, spending too much time on social media or Netflix, or sometimes failing to even do the basics of eating properly and maintaining good hygiene. When you see all this happening, you may be tempted to tell the person exhibiting these behaviours to ‘pull up their socks’, ‘just get up and eat’, and so on.
But tough love is not only unhelpful in these situations; it is also actively harmful. There are many excellent reasons for discarding tough love, but here is the most important one: no one is tougher on themselves than the person with depression.
Here is a mild, PG-version of what is going on in our heads: ‘Why are you not getting up? What is wrong with you? Get up RIGHT NOW. Come on, you can do it. Goddamn it, why aren’t you doing it? Why aren’t you even trying?’ This plays in our head, on and on, for hours.
And none of it works. It doesn’t work because this isn’t everyday sadness. Nobody wants to be depressed. If you feel the depressed person is being lazy or indulging themselves: nobody who is indulging themselves is desperately unhappy doing it. The depressed person is miserable through all of it. There is deep suffering.
When you add your external tough love to our self-inflicted tough love, all you do is make us feel even worse about ourselves. ‘Not only are you disappointing yourself, you are also disappointing people who care about you.’ This disappointment is a shovel we use to dig a deeper hole around ourselves.
People who have not experienced this chakravyuh cannot appreciate what it feels like to be in it. (Even those of us who have been in it forget what it’s like when we’re out!) If you could get a glimpse of what is really going on, I promise you’d be amazed by how hard a person with depression is trying to fight. Whenever you see a person with depression doing nothing, think of a duck on a lake: serene on the surface, but paddling furiously underneath.
So furiously are they padding that they are exhausted from it. Do you remember how you felt the last time you were drop-dead exhausted? Did you have any energy left over to ‘pull up your socks’ at that point? Were you able to do anything other than hope to rest? That is where they’re at, though it does not seem so on the surface.
We know it is hard for you to see us be that way and do nothing, but if the choice is between doing nothing and giving a dose of tough love, please choose to do nothing. It will help more.
(Notice how I haven’t yet said you should talk to people with depression or give them advice. The talking bit is harder, and you are not ready yet.)
Guest Blog Credit : Partha P. Chakrabartty
Partha P. Chakrabartty is an independent journalist and columnist published at Firstpost.com, The Wire, and HT Mint.
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