How to Help Someone with Depression

how to help someone with depression

Depression is a serious and often debilitating mental health disorder that can affect anyone at any age and at any stage of life.

It can be difficult to know how to help someone with depression. At First Light Recovery, we believe that understanding the causes, signs, and symptoms of depression, and knowing how to best provide support, is essential for helping a loved one cope with their depression.

In this resource page, we will explore the causes of depression, the signs and symptoms to look out for, available treatment options, and the most effective ways to support someone who is struggling with depression.

What is Depression?

Depression is a mental health disorder—one of several mood disorders—that is characterized by a persistent feeling of sadness, loneliness, and hopelessness. People suffering from depression may also experience difficulty concentrating, sleeping, and/or making decisions. In severe cases, depression can include suicidal thoughts or behaviors. 1

The Prevalence of Depression in the United States

The prevalence of depression in the United States is estimated to be over 20%, with over 17 million adults in the U.S. alone estimated to have had major depressive episodes in the past year. Although depression can affect anyone, certain groups are at a higher risk of developing depression, including women, those with a family history of depression, those who are unemployed or underemployed, and those who have experienced trauma. 2

Depression vs. Sadness or Grief/Bereavement

It’s important to understand that feeling sad now and again is not the same as being clinically depressed. It’s natural to experience sadness and go through a grieving process after the death of a loved one or the ending of a long relationship. Losing a job or moving to a new city are other challenging situations that may include feelings of loss, sadness, and bereavement.

People experiencing such things may sometimes describe themselves as being “depressed.” But, in most cases, this is not the same as suffering from clinical depression.

The grieving process is unique to each individual and may share some of the same features of depression. For instance, both grief and depression can include deep sadness and a withdrawal from usual activities. But natural sadness/grief and clinical depression are also different in important ways. For instance:


Distinguishing between grief and depression is important and can assist people in getting the help, support, or professional treatment they need.

Causes of Depression

The exact cause of depression is still unknown, but several factors may contribute to its onset. These include genetic predisposition, environmental factors, and emotional and physical stressors.


Genetic Predisposition for Depression

Some people may be genetically predisposed to depression. This means they are more likely to develop depression because of their genetic makeup, which they inherited from their parents and other ancestors. Research has indicated that people with a family history of depression are at a higher risk for the disorder.

Environmental Factors Contributing to Depression

Environmental factors such as poverty, violence, and traumatic life events can also increase a person’s likelihood of developing depression. Those who live in an unstable home, have strained relationships with family members, or have experienced bullying or frequent criticism are at a higher risk of developing depression.

Emotional and Physical stressors Leading to Depression

Emotional and physical stressors can also lead to depression. Stressful life circumstances, bereavement, and chronic illnesses can trigger depression. Stressful events, such as losing a job, can cause a person to become depressed. Additionally, physical conditions such as thyroid disorders, anemia, and chronic pain can also be linked to depression.

Personality factors may also play a role in the onset of depression. People with low self-esteem, who are easily overwhelmed by stress, or who are generally pessimistic appear to be more likely to experience depression.

Brain Biochemistry and Depression

Changes in brain biochemistry may also be involved in the development of depression. For instance, experts have learned that imbalances in the level of the neurotransmitter serotonin are often correlated with major depressive disorder. And there is evidence that cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, is also linked with depression.

However, the most recent research suggests that depression doesn’t arise simply from having too much or too little of certain brain chemicals. Instead, there are many possible causes of depression, including genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, and faulty mood regulation within the brain. In many cases, one or more of these influences interact to bring on depression. So, the onset of depression is much more complex than a brain chemical imbalance. 3

Signs and Symptoms of Depression

What are the signs that a person or their loved one may be suffering from depression? Some common signs and symptoms of depression include: 4

How Psychiatrists Diagnose Depression

Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals diagnose depression by using the criteria described in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5). 5

To diagnose a person with depression, the DSM-5 criteria must be met. These include experiencing at least five of the following symptoms over two weeks:

How to Support Someone with Depression

Depression can be a difficult and isolating experience. It’s important to remember that depression is more than just sadness and that it is not something that a person can “just get over.”

For this reason, it can be difficult to know what to do when someone you care about is suffering from depression. Here are some strategies to support them. 6

1. Be Supportive

The most important thing you can do is be there to show them they are loved and supported. Listen to their thoughts and feelings without passing judgment and let them know it’s okay to feel the way they do.

2. Listen and be Available

Let your loved one know that you are available to talk, but don’t push them to talk about things if they don’t want to. Listen to what they have to say and validate their feelings.

3. Don't Judge or Criticize

Avoid offering unsolicited advice or passing judgment on your loved one’s feelings or actions.

4. Encourage Them to Seek Professional Help

If your loved one’s depression is severe or persists, encourage them to see a mental health professional. Remind them that they are not alone and that they can get help.

People with depression may not acknowledge or even recognize that they’re depressed. They may not be aware of the signs and symptoms of depression, so assume that their feelings are normal.

Alternatively, a person might feel ashamed about their depression or believe they should be able to overcome it on their own, with willpower alone. But depression rarely improves without professional treatment, and it may get worse. With the right treatment, the person you care about can get better, so it’s important to encourage them to seek help by:

5. Participate in Activities Together

Doing things together, whether it be going for a walk, running errands, or seeing a movie, can provide an outlet for the person to express their feelings and build a sense of community.

6. Encourage Healthy Lifestyle Habits

Depression can often be exacerbated by poor lifestyle habits, such as an unhealthy diet, lack of sleep, lack of exercise, and stress. Encourage your loved one to make lifestyle changes, such as eating a balanced diet, exercising, getting enough sleep, and practicing yoga or meditation.

7. Take Care of Yourself

It can be difficult to provide support to someone with depression, so be sure to take care of yourself. Make sure you get enough rest, exercise, and engage in activities that you enjoy. Ask other relatives or friends to help, and take steps to prevent becoming frustrated or burned out. Find your own time for hobbies, physical activity, friends, and spiritual renewal.

What NOT to Do When Someone Is Depressed

When trying to help someone who is suffering from depression, it is important to remember not to:

Effective Treatments for Depression

Depression is a serious disorder, but it can be effectively managed with a combination of treatments, including medication, psychotherapy, lifestyle changes, and holistic treatments. Treatment plans should be tailored to the individual’s needs and should be supervised by a mental health professional.

Medications Used To Treat Depression

Depression sometimes involves biochemical imbalances in the brain. In such cases, medications can be a useful part of treatment. Common medications used to treat depression include:

Psychotherapy for Depression

Psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is a form of therapy that is used to treat depression. In psychotherapy, a licensed therapist will work with a client to identify negative thought patterns and behaviors that may be contributing to their depression and work to develop healthy coping strategies to help the client better manage their symptoms.

Styles of psychotherapy that are commonly used to treat depression include:

Lifestyle Changes to Help Heal Depression

Lifestyle changes can be an effective way to help manage depression. Some lifestyle changes that may help include:

* Exercising regularly. A half-hour daily of moderate exercises such as walking, hiking, biking, swimming, or weight training can help ease the symptoms of depression.

* Reducing stress. Finding ways to skillfully manage stress levels is an important part of recovering from depression.

* Eating a healthy diet. A balanced healthy diet includes plenty of fresh organic vegetables and fruits; whole grains; high-quality protein; probiotic foods; and healthy fats/oils (e.g., extra virgin olive oil, coconut oil, butter/ghee, and avocados) to support the health of the brain and nervous system. 7

* Getting enough sleep. Going to bed and waking up at approximately the same time each day helps balance the body’s circadian rhythms.

* Practicing yoga or meditation. Restorative/therapeutic yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are great ways to regulate stress levels and access inner peace and joy.

* Limiting caffeine and alcohol intake. Keeping the physical body healthy is an important aspect of recovering from depression.

* Staying socially active. Cultivating support networks and enjoying activities with friends can help in recovering from depression.

Holistic Treatments for Depression

Holistic treatments, such as acupuncture, massage, reflexology, light therapy, and herbal remedies, can be powerful tools in treating depression. While research is ongoing on the effectiveness of holistic treatments, there is some evidence to suggest that they may be beneficial in managing depression.

Begin Your Healing Journey at First Light Recovery

Depression is a serious and often debilitating mental health disorder that can affect anyone at any age and at any stage. It can be difficult to know how to help someone who is dealing with depression, but seeking professional care and guidance is often a good place to start.

First Light Recovery is a residential mental health facility—located in beautiful South Orange County, California—that offers treatment for severe mental health issues, ranging from mood disorders to trauma.

At First Light Recovery, we believe in the power of evidence-based treatment in helping people heal from depression. To better understand whether you or a loved one may be suffering from depression, take our depression self-test.

The skilled and compassionate therapists at First Light Recovery provide individual and group therapy to support clients in recovering from depression. The proven modalities utilized in these therapy sessions include:

First Light Recovery offers a friendly, warm, home-like environment to support the healing process. We are committed to meeting the unique needs of each individual client to provide optimal and highly personalized support from our team of clinicians.

To learn more about our treatment programs for depression, and how they can help you or a loved one, contact us today.

References & Resources

  1. What Is Depression? American Psychiatric Association.
  2. Depression. America’s Health Rankings: Annual Report (2022).
  3. What Causes Depression? Harvard Medical School: Harvard Health Publishing.
  4. What Is Depression? American Psychiatric Association.
  6. Depression: Supporting a Family Member or Friend. Mayo Clinic.
  7. Link, Rachel (January 26, 2023). 11 Best Healthy Fats for Your Body. Dr. Axe Website.