No stranger to the black dog, Annabel Giles offers a few personal tips on how to help someone suffering from this frightening and debilitating condition.
If you see someone running through the streets naked and wild-eyed, shouting Things, then it’s quite easy to spot that they are mentally unwell. If, on the other hand, they’re sofa-bound, still and silent then you might think they’re just a bit fed up.
You might be tempted to say something like, “Cheer up – it might never happen!” Or, if you’ve tried that and it didn’t work, you might become exasperated, and say, “Oh come on, pull yourself together, nothing’s that bad.” Perhaps you’d opt for the classic, “But you haven’t got anything to be sad about!”
Depression in a nutshell: often it’s triggered by an event; just as often it isn’t. The feelings of hopelessness, despair and darkness are overwhelming. Your head plays tricks on you, you believe you’re going mad and will never be well again. You can’t concentrate on anything for too long, you no longer enjoy the things you used to, you can’t focus for any length of time. You either eat too much or not enough. Your sex drive is a distant memory. You sleep all the time but feel as if you’ve never had any sleep at all. There isn’t much point in going on, and people would be better off without you, which is why it seems like a really good idea to kill yourself.
It’s that serious.
I know this because I have had depression for most of my adult life. There seems to be an epidemic nowadays, as modern life gets more and more pressurised. This illness is not a sign of weakness; there’s more strength in surrendering than trying to carry on, causing more problems for all concerned.
So how can you support someone with depression? Well, it’s difficult. People with depression want to be on their own, but they don’t want to be alone. Like I said, difficult.
Don’t try to jolly them along. There’s little control over this illness: you can’t speed it up; it decides when it’s going to leave, not you. You wouldn’t try to hurry along a broken leg’s healing, so give it the time it demands.
Ask the sufferer what they need, rather than try to second-guess them. A trip to the shops can seem a bridge too far if, on that particular day, making a cup of tea is all they can manage. Only plan a nice day out if you’re sure you won’t resent them when they ‘spoil’ it by not coming.
Be reliable and safe. Be as good as your word, and keep reassuring the person that you’re still there. Show them you care: pop a bar of chocolate through the letterbox; offer to help them with some admin; suggest a short walk; keep it simple.
Let them know that this will pass; they won’t feel like this forever. Remind them that the illness is playing tricks on them, not to believe the thoughts going round and round in their head. But don’t try and get them to talk about it. They can’t, not yet.
Don’t offer solutions. It’s unlikely that you will have suddenly come up with a miraculous cure. Medication, counselling, exercise and diet are all helpful tools, but don’t force them through. Even though they’re ill, they still need to make their own choices.
Expect them to say ‘no’ to everything. Celebrate a ‘yes’, but quietly, to yourself.
For me, this is the beginning of the slow recovery. When I want to come out of the dark place, that’s my first step back into the world.
And don’t forget to look after yourself. You need to be in good condition to help someone who isn’t.
Sometimes, sometimes I wish I was the person running naked through the streets – at least then you’d know I wasn’t well, and you wouldn’t think I was just flakey.
We have to treat depression as carefully and as seriously as we do other serious illnesses; after all, it can be fatal.
Annabel GIles is a mother and a doglover and a writer and a chatterbox and a tv presenter and a homeowner and a girlfriend and menopausal so all that’s probably in the wrong order but what of it so there.