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Mental Health Awareness is a Family Affair: A Brief Guide to Being Aware and Empathetic When a Loved One Has Depression

mother and teen daughter

As per a recent report published by Mental Health First Aid, mental health issues affect about 47 per cent of the adult population, 13 percent of children and 46 percent of teenagers each year. But unfortunately, only half of the affected people receive appropriate treatment, often due to the stigma attached to it.

Researchers are increasingly becoming aware that sometimes depression runs in families across multiple generations. Women tend to experience postpartum depression, while excessive fears and panic attacks spell an anxiety disorder in children. Thus, it becomes increasingly important for family members and caregivers to extend their helping hand and actively play a part in the recovery of people in mental distress.

Family members contribute powerfully to the emotional atmosphere of a depressed person and awareness of the same can transform them into agents of recovery.  Helping a loved one battling with mental health issues can be challenging. In case of people with severe depression, the symptoms can range from facing problems to conduct day-to-day activities (like getting to work each day or attending school), to feeling miserable or overwhelmed with certain emotions without knowing the reason behind it.

Undoubtedly, this makes the situation even more challenging for caregivers. The severity of the disorder keeps differing from person to person, and at times, you might feel at a loss for how to best support the person and manage the derailed family dynamics.

So, how can you help?

I’ve been on the receiving as well as the giving end of kind-hearted attempts to lift stress and depression many more times than I’d like to count. And I’ve observed that in each case, the maddening mood disorder is quite unique and that every individual responds to different treatments. Still, there are a few things you might try to empower your family member down the path of recovery and healing.

Identify the signs of mental illness

Having frank and open discussions about mental illness with your family members and children can help raise awareness to a great extent. Tell them that mental illness or anxiety is treatable with the right therapies, specialists, and medications.

Also, it becomes essential to dispel the myths about depression actively within the family. Whenever you observe a family member saying to someone with depression to get out of bed and do something productive, address the issues upfront. Explain that depression does not have any on/off button, and that treatment is often the best cure to make the person feel better.

Learn to ask the right questions

“Do you want to talk about what’s bothering you? I will be right here whenever you are ready.”

You can’t just force someone to speak out. However, knowing that you are available might really help a person feel loved and supported. If your child or a teenage family member reaches out to you with a lot of mental baggage, try to pursaude him or her of the benefits of seeking treatment.

Many a time, teenagers are subjected to bullying. It defeats their self-esteem and causes hopelessness, sadness, and even thoughts of suicide in extreme cases.

Thus, asking the right questions is crucial, as the terrain is vast and every person’s experience will be different from another’s. Explain the signs of bullying and talk to your children about how to deal with bullying without letting it harm their self-esteem. You can also reach out to the school authorities and ask them to take strict measures to address it.

You can ask the following questions to help identify the trigger points:

  • When did you first start feeling bad?
  • Can you think of anything that might have triggered it?
  • Is there anything that might make you feel better?

If loved ones are reluctant to share their stories, you can ask them to consult a specialist or inspire them to seek treatment by sharing your personal experiences of struggle.

Talk to them about therapy and support groups

No matter the type of illness — colon cancer, cardiovascular disease, fibromyalgia — all people need support systems to fully recover from the trauma of any pressing disease or disorder. They need friends and family members they can confide in to vent and swap horror stories, and people who can remind them that they are not alone even if the symptoms make them feel that way.

Research shows that support groups and sensitive family members aid the recovery of a struggling person and decrease chances of relapse. The New England Journal of Medicine published a book report in 2001, describing a study of 158 women with breast cancer who were involved in a supportive-expressive therapy. These women showed significant improvement in psychological symptoms and eventually experienced less amounts of pain than the women who only received medication with no supportive therapy.

So, brainstorm with your family member on ways that he or she can get more support.

Remind them of their strengths

“When you’re depressed, you don’t believe that you’re worthy of love – Dr.  DePaulo

This is what makes communication and relationships especially difficult. But an excellent way of nudging reluctant loved ones to recovery is to remind them of their strengths.

Cite concrete examples, like you would do for an annotated bibliography, to remind your child, mother, sister, brother, or dad of his/her strengths. Talk to them about the times of their lives they exemplified stamina, compassion, integrity, courage, and perseverance. If possible, show them photos of their accomplishments and victories to bolster their confidence and encourage them through the path of healing.

Be an empathetic listener

“Most people experiencing distressing emotions and thoughts want an empathetic listener before being offered helpful options and resources.” – Mental Health First Aid USA manual

When someone near to you experiences symptoms of a mental health crisis, a specific kind of listening can be hugely effective: empathetic listening. Having an empathetic listener nearby, during days of crisis and stress can be reassuring and calming – even healing.

Unlike sympathy, empathy does not mean seeing the situation from the same point of view. Instead, it requires you to take a moment out from your normal patterns of thinking to imagine and feel, what it is actually like to be the person in front of you.  Firstly, you will need to diffuse any tension by establishing rapport with the person in distress. Listen quietly, without immediately engaging in problem-solving to signal that you are on his or her side and validate the other person’s experience.

Parting note

At certain points in time, your relationship with the family member may seem one-sided, as, during times of mental crisis, a person’s mind is filled with a never-ending loop of destructive and painful thoughts. Give that person time to heal and motivate yourself to stay strong. Helping your loved ones through this difficult affliction will only strengthen your relationship and improve their mental health in the long term.

Till then, remind them of their strengths, talk to them about your favorite things about them, reminisce about all their positive qualities and that you love them and will always be there to support them, till they get over this difficult time.



Author Bio: Shirley Brown is a practicing psychologist who completed her degree in clinical psychiatry from the University of London. She is also associated with MyAssignmenthelp, through which she guides students with their annotated bibliography and book reports on psychology and psychoanalytic studies whenever they face problems.

The opinions and views expressed in this guest blog do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in this article or linked to herein.

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2 thoughts on “Mental Health Awareness is a Family Affair: A Brief Guide to Being Aware and Empathetic When a Loved One Has Depression

  1. Danielle Leblanc, RtoR.Org Resource Specialist says:

    Hello John,

    Thank you for commenting, if you are interested in getting guidance and mental health resources, please feel free to email us at help@rtor.org.


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