According to the National Institute of Mental Health, depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States, with an estimated 16.2 million adults experiencing a major depressive episode each year. The prevalence of depression is even higher for women, young people (18-25), and mixed-race adults. For many people, depression can “result in severe impairments that interfere with or limit one’s ability to carry out major life activities.” Common symptoms of depression include: a persistent sad, anxious, or empty mood, loss of hope, irritability, feelings of guilt or worthlessness, decreased energy, loss of interest in activities previously found pleasurable, difficulty concentrating, disruptions in sleep habits, and appetite or weight changes.

Social workers can employ a variety of supportive communication strategies, intervention approaches, and therapeutic techniques to help people who are experiencing depression to return to their previous level of functioning. In some cases, medications are also used to help people who are depressed. Focusing on diet, nutrition, and exercise has also proven effective in alleviating symptoms of depression. However, the process of recovery from depression takes time, even for those who are receiving professional help from a social worker or other licensed clinician. As leading depression expert Dr. Susan Noonan states: “It can take several weeks before a person who has depression sees a response to treatment.” And those weeks can be a challenging time, for the person who is depressed and their loved ones, as well as the clinician providing professional services.

However, there are some immediate steps that social workers and loved ones can take to help people who are depressed, suggested in Dr. Noonan’s book: When Someone you Know has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do. Social workers receive professional training in supporting and treating people who are experiencing depression and other major mental illnesses, however, the following strategies might prove useful during early sessions with a client experiencing depression. Social workers can also educate the clients’ family members and friends about these useful strategies (or refer them to the book), so that they too can help support their loved one during a depressive episode.

  • Acknowledge the person’s depressed mood (sadness, anger, or irritability) and help the person explore their feelings about it.

    • Use an opening statement like: “I noticed you seem sad today” or “You seem to be feeling irritable.”

    • Then, gently encourage the person to open up about their feelings using open questions like: “Is there something going on?” or “Why do you think you’re feeling that way?”

    • If the person chooses to talk about their depression, listen attentively and empathetically without judgment.

  • Help the person identify and implement coping strategies, or ways to alleviate the depressive symptoms.

    • Coping strategies might include: distracting oneself from the problem through other activities (hobbies, movies, social events), humor, physical activity, relaxation techniques (breathing exercises, meditation, yoga)

    • Try asking the person what they have done to deal with such feelings in the past.

    • If the person is able to identify a coping strategy, family members and friends can offer to participate with them in it – like watching a movie together, going for a run, or making them laugh.

  • If the person has lost interest in things they used to enjoy, help the person identify their interests and hobbies.

    • Try making a list together of things that interest the person, or that they enjoyed doing in the past.

    • Family members and friends likely have some knowledge of the person’s interests and hobbies, so they can be particularly helpful in this activity, and invite the person to participate in something on the list.

  • If the person has a change in appetite and/or weight, support the person in maintaining a healthy, well-balanced diet.

    • Try creating a shopping list or meal plan with the person.

    • Family members or friends can go grocery shopping with the person, or offer to cook meals together.

  • If the person has sleep difficulties, encourage them to get a full 7-8 hours of sleep.

    • A healthy diet, regular fluid intake, and physical exercise can support healthy sleep patterns.

  • If the person has trouble concentrating or focusing, assist them in using other methods to keep track of life activities

    • Using a daily agenda, calendar or planner might help the person remember upcoming appointments and events

    • It might be better for the person to focus on one thing at a time, instead of multi-tasking

    • Taking notes or using sticky notes can be helpful ways of remembering information.

For more tips, check out Dr. Susan Noonan’s book: When Someone you Know has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do

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