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How to help when you think someone may be struggling with their mental health

Most of us have experienced days when we’re not feeling our best.

Things become overwhelming and our energy levels decrease leaving us feeling depressed, tired, angry or sad.

While it’s OK to not be OK, these depressive thoughts and feelings can become problematic when they linger for long periods of time, negatively impacting on the things that used to once give you enjoyment in life.

It can be hard enough to recognise possible signs of depression within ourselves, let alone in others. Identifying signs of depression in our friends, family and work colleagues can be difficult as sometimes the signs aren’t very obvious.

You may notice that someone isn’t quite acting like themselves, but how can you tell if someone is really struggling and maybe feeling depressed? What are the signs to look out for? How can you approach that person without upsetting them or making the situation worse?

Our psychology and counselling team provides us with some helpful tips to assist with identifying possible signs of depression in others, as well as some practical ways that you can help to support them.

Possible signs of depression

While it can be common for people to try and hide the fact that they are struggling with their mental health, others may not even realise themselves. Some of the less obvious signs that someone may be struggling with possible depression include:

  • A flat mood and outlook on most days. For example, they don’t appear joyful, but they’re not appearing overtly depressed, anxious or stressed either.
  • A consistent change in mood. For example, they often appear depressed, stressed, or irritable, and that is out of character for them.
  • Distraction and a struggle to focus on work, or the task at hand.
  • Appearance of being clumsier than usual. This could be a more subtle indication that the person is distracted, or that their mind may be elsewhere.
  • Appearance of being a “thrill seeker” or engaging in risky behaviours that are not in their normal nature.
  • Talk of not getting enough, or too much sleep.
  • Noticeable changes to appetite – either not eating enough or overeating.
  • Appearing highly stressed for an extended period.
  • Voicing an inability to “cope”.

Think someone might be depressed? Here are some actions you can take

  • Ask them if they’re OK by taking them aside and speaking with them privately.
  • Let them know that you care about them and that you’ve noticed some things lately that have concerned you.
  • Remind them that there is no shame in speaking up if they are struggling.
  • Listen twice and speak once. Try to make sure that you’re being empathetic and listening to what they have to say, rather than giving advice or focusing on trying to make them feel better. Listening is underrated.
  • Encourage them to seek professional help from their GP, their Employee Assistance Program, or another qualified mental health professional.
  • Remind them that crisis support services exist and encourage them to reach out to those services if they need to.
  • Listen with empathy, assure them that their feelings are valid and that it’s OK to not be OK.

These conversations can be difficult, here are some things to avoid

  • Don’t have the conversation in public – you want to avoid making someone feel ashamed or embarrassed.
  • Don’t start the conversation when you yourself are emotional – when you are emotional you are less likely to be able to think logically and more likely to say things that you don’t mean.
  • Don’t give advice. You are not an expert on another person’s life and can’t possibly know the exact details of their situation. Provide support by listening and physically being there for them where you can. You want to encourage the person to seek professional mental health support so that they can obtain more appropriate guidance.
  • Don’t tell them about all the reasons why they should be happier, or why they shouldn’t be feeling the way they do. Instead, listen with empathy, assure them that their feelings are valid and that it’s OK to not be OK.

One last and very important thing to consider

When approaching someone about their mental health, it is important to remember that you are not a mental health professional. It is not your job to ‘fix’ their situation.

Rather than focusing on things you can say or do to ‘fix’ the situation for them, simply focus on listening with empathy.

If someone confides in you that they are experiencing extreme thoughts, or that they are self-harming or has attempted suicide, remember that it is not your fault; we can’t always pick up on the warning signs ahead of time.

If you are worried about someone’s immediate safety, always ring 000 so that emergency services can check on them and make sure that they obtain appropriate help and support. There are also 24-hour crisis support services like Lifeline available to provide immediate assistance.

Most importantly, look after yourself!

When we listen to other people, we may feel great about helping them, but holding emotional space for others is mentally, emotionally, and even physically draining.

It’s important that you practice good self-care (including speaking to a professional yourself) to prevent experiencing compassion fatigue or vicarious trauma. Remember we need to be looking after ourselves first and foremost.

If you, or someone you know, is feeling depressed or showing signs of depression, there are a number of support services available.

Support Services

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