“Pull yourself together.” “Put a smile on your face.” “Just do it!” These may be among the things you’d like to say to a friend or loved-one when it frustratingly appears they won’t do anything to help pull themselves out of the emotional doldrums… but they are also some of the most useless. How, then, can you offer real help to someone close who is suffering from depression?
Borrowing essential skills from the coaching, counselling and psychology professions will give you the communication techniques you need to find out how to help a depressed person. A good place to start, then, is to understand the kinds of therapies that are proven to be effective in overcoming depression.
Today, psychologists and counsellors generally agree that a focus on why one is depressed – asking, for instance, “What went wrong in the past?” – is ineffective in treating the condition. Instead, the therapies shown to be successful focus on things like what we do, how we think about things, how we relate to others, how things are going to be better in the future, how we can get our emotional needs met in the wider world and how we can find solutions to our immediate problems.
By way of unpacking these therapies one by one, we look at some of the questions you can ask your loved-one to help him or her get a better perspective on their depression. Seemingly simple questions like…
“What do you do?”
What you’re really asking here is, “What destructive behaviours are feeding your depression?” While perceptions and thought processes are vitally important in treating the condition, changing people’s behaviour can have dramatic results, too. This is the basic premise of behavioural therapy – that if people feel miserable it is because of the way they behave. In the first instance, helping someone to see that their behaviours – only dragging themselves out of bed at lunchtime, isolating themselves socially, binge-eating, etc – are atypical and unhealthy, you will help them to recognise their depression, which is the first step to treating it. In the second instance, behaviour therapists assert, changing these negative behaviours – even if one has to force oneself to do so – can significantly alter one’s negative frame of mind. In essence, it’s a case of you are what you do.
“How do you think?”
“Do you actually feel fear or do you just think something is frightening?” Helping someone to separate feelings or emotions from thoughts can be a useful tool in unpacking their depression. Identifying and working on one’s thinking styles is essential in treating the condition, say cognitive therapists, who operate off the basic idea that all emotion comes from thoughts. Cognitive therapy teaches people to learn to ‘catch’ their thought patterns and challenge them so that they can feel differently.
“How do you relate to others?”
“Do you wish you could just be alone? Are you afraid you won’t know what to say? Are you afraid you’ll say too much?” The way that people relate to others in their lives and how they communicate and express themselves is the focus of interpersonal therapy. One of the common traits of many depression sufferers is dissatisfaction in their relationships, so ‘re-learning’ social skills, say interpersonal therapists, equips them with the techniques needed to sustain their relationships successfully. Because communication skills are ‘teachable’, this a worthwhile practical line of enquiry to employ alongside other counselling modalities.
“How are things going to be better in the future?”
By helping the depression sufferer identify solutions to problems, with an emphasis on future wellness rather than past hurts, you can provide to your loved-one a form of motivational counselling known as solutions-focused therapy. The emphasis here is on teaching new hope-based skills and keeping the focus on the issues at stake, with the picture of a brighter future always in mind.
Each of the therapies above can help significantly to overcome depression and good depression counselling uses all these approaches in a skilful blend. Of course, if you are interested in entering the helping professions, why not consider taking a counselling course? SACAP offers a Bachelor of Psychology professional degree, approved by the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) for the education and training of Registered Counsellors.