Family Health: Helping friends, family with depression can be valuable holiday gift

The solitary grouch at the holiday table or the cranky family member who refuses to enjoy festive events is a Hollywood stock character. While everyone else is bright and cheerful, this person is dark and quiet. Or angry and loud, or tearful and sad. These people can be entertaining in the movies, but in real life they can change the whole quality of your holiday. Worse, the behavior you're seeing may indicate more than just a bad attitude. Your loved one may have depression, which can be a debilitating illness.

While holiday stress makes many people feel overwhelmed and withdrawn, those with depression don't get relief when the season is over. Their symptoms are also more severe, affecting every part of their lives. Depression can happen to anyone, but watch for it especially in people who have had unwelcome changes in their lives, such as losing a loved one or being diagnosed with a serious illness.

One or two instances of moody or irritable behavior doesn't mean your loved one is depressed. But it may be the problem if the person also:

  • Has lost interest in activities he or she used to enjoy, such as hobbies, music, sports or work.
  • Talks about feeling helpless or hopeless and shows a bleak or negative outlook on life.
  • Has withdrawn from friends and family, and avoids social activities.
  • Sleeps much more or less than usual, or feels tired all the time.
  • Complains frequently of headaches, stomach problems or other aches and pains.
  • Seems disorganized, indecisive and forgetful.
  • Drinks alcohol to excess or abuses drugs, including prescription pain medicines and sleeping pills.

For people with depression, the holiday season can be especially tough. One of the best things you can do – and also one of the hardest – is to start a conversation about how the person is doing. The simple act of talking about it can be an enormous help. Try saying that you've been concerned that he or she seems down, and give the person time to answer. You may have to try several times before your loved one opens up.

Here are some dos and don'ts for helping someone with depression:

  • Do: Be a good listener. Encourage the person to talk, and listen without passing judgement.
  • Don't: Minimize the problem by saying things like, "We all go through times like this," or "Look on the bright side."
  • Do: Explain that depression is a medical problem and not a personal flaw. People with depression often feel embarrassed about their condition.
  • Don't: Be offended or angry if the person doesn't participate in holiday events.
  • Do: Suggest an appointment with a mental health provider or with the person's personal doctor. Offer to make the appointment and to go along for support.
  • Don't: Expect the person to get better right away. It can take months for depression to lift, even with treatment.
  • Do: Encourage the person to get the right amount of sleep and eat healthy meals. Try making a plan to meet for a walk or other type of exercise.
  • Don't: Neglect your own health. It's easy to let a loved one's depression take over your life. Stay healthy by taking time for yourself and seeking support from friends and family if you need it.

People with depression can feel so hopeless that suicide seems like the only way to stop the pain. It's important to watch for signs that your loved one may be planning take his or her life. Clues include talking about suicide or death, seeking out weapons or medications for an overdose, or behaving in dangerous or self-destructive ways. People who are planning suicide may also get their affairs in order and say goodbye to friends. And a sudden sense of calm can indicate the person anticipates death will soon relieve their suffering.

If you see any of these signs, speak up. Tell the person you're worried, and get help right away. The National Suicide Hotline, 1-800-273-8255, is a place to start, but also call the person's doctor or mental health provider.  For more local resources and information, please visit the Western Montana Suicide Prevention Initiative's website at wmspi.org.

Good mental health care can help bring people back from depression. You can find out more or make an appointment with your primary care provider.