How to Help Someone With Depression?

It seems 2020 was the year that broke everyone. Whether it was fears of the pandemic, isolation, financial struggles or uncertainty about the future, mental health took a toll.

According to statistics from the South African Depression & Anxiety Group (SADAG), 1 in 5 South Africans will experience a depressive episode in their lives. Tragically, two-thirds of these people will not receive treatment.


SADAG indicates that someone suffering from a depressive episode may suffer from the following:

  • Feeling sad, anxious or “empty” most of the time
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyed
  • Feeling hopeless about life
  • Feeling helpless or guilty
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Weight loss or weight gain
  • Loss of energy, feeling “slow” or fatigued
  • Thoughts of death or suicide, suicide attempts
  • Restlessness, irritability, anger
  • Difficulty concentrating, remembering things or making decisions
  • Physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment, such as headaches, stomach pain, back pain, chest pain, despite being checked by a doctor

A person with depression may suffer from a few of these indicators or many. Depression takes many forms.

With so many people who suffer from a mental illness, therefore it’s very possible someone you may know does too. How do you even begin to help them?


The best way to help your loved one is to try and understand what they are going through. Try and research their mental illness. There is a lot of stigma and misinformation about mental illnesses, so being informed will be beneficial. It will also make the your friend feel seen and understood. Depression is very isolating and treating it like the case of “the blues” can be disheartening for the person suffering. This will only make them create emotional walls around them. Avoid using phrases like “Pull yourself together” or “Get over it”.

If they are on medication, take the time to understand the side effects which also might affect their behaviour.


Depression can convince a person that they are a burden whom no one wants to deal with. Therefore as a friend, you need to show that you care.

It is vital to listen, rather than speak and also not to take up space talking about your own experiences. Depression makes it hard for people to open up, so when they do, allow them that space. Let them tell you what they need and how you can assist, rather than assuming you know best.

They may withdraw in their depression. Let them know you are thinking of them by text and phone call. Continue to include them in invites to do things.

It is important to remember that depression is an illness, therefore try not to judge or blame them for their actions. However, persistent toxic behaviour should be called out if it is hurting the people and relationships around them. It is common for a depressed person to lash out at those around them – don’t take it personally!


You cannot change feeling depressed but you can change how you cope with it. Someone who suffers from depression may feel unmotivated to do anything, however this will contribute to them feeling “useless”. Therefore it would help to gently encourage them to do daily tasks – nothing too big though, as they may become overwhelmed. Start off with “workable tasks”:

  1. Something they can control (i.e., it doesn’t depend on others)
  2. Manageable (i.e., not overwhelming)
  3. Realistic for them (not for someone else)
  4. Measurable (i.e., they know whether or not it is done or getting done)

Light exercise helps too. Adding endorphins will always be a good pick-me-up.

Maintaining a good sleep schedule is also a key factor. Sleeping too little or too much will negatively impact your mental health.

It is important to also practice mindfulness and self-compassion during these times. Dr Kirstin Neff of says, “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?”. Dr Neff has included several exercises on her website that may help your loved one.

Should there be little or no improvement or episodes become more frequent, consider encouraging therapy. So many people see psychologists nowadays for all manner of things – there is no shame in needing some outside input. SADAG has many resources on getting the help needed as well as talking to trained counsellors.


Unfortunately caring for a person with a mental illness may start taking it’s toll. It is important to set up boundaries and give time and energy when you have the capacity to do so. It is possible to help, while putting yourself first.

When things feel hard, take a step back and re-evaluate. Know when you have reached the limit on what you can handle and when to hand the reins over to a professional. Your need for assistance in the matter is valid.

If you feel like your loved one is at risk of harming themselves, please contact the South African Depression & Anxiety Group 24-hour suicide prevention line on 0800 567 567.

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