Back to Basics: Supporting Teens and Loved Ones with Depression

As a supporter of a family member suffering from depression, I know how difficult it can be. The worry, exhaustion, frustrations, concerns, and pain can become overwhelming.  Supporting loved ones with depression can be confusing. Why are they so sad? Why don’t they enjoy things they used to? Why don’t they have energy or motivation? Was it something I did? What could I have done better? What can I do now?

In the midst of the struggle, it’s easy to become wrapped up in what you don’t know or what you can’t change. You might feel lost, scared, or confused. There is clarity in sticking to what you do know and what you can do. You know that someone in your life is hurting. You know you are hurting for them.  You know basic personal health strategies and stress-relief techniques. But, you’re not used to doing just the basics and the stress you’re experiencing may be affecting your ability to think clearly enough to help yourself or others. During stress, our bodies’ autonomic nervous system -the fight-or-flight response- kicks in, much like a pilot taking manual control of an airplane in an emergency. This response is designed to send blood and strength to our extremities to help us literally run to escape danger. But, in doing so, this bodily response diverts blood away from the brain, making it much more difficult for us to think and problem-solve effectively during critical, decision-making situations. So, slow down and take back control by going back to the basics.

Personal Health

You might ask, why are we talking about me? I’m fine! … But are you really? Take a minute to think about how your life was before the depression.  As I look back on my own life, I can see I’ve changed. Ever-so-subtle changes I made over a period of months or even years are suddenly not so small when I look at the big picture.

I’ve learned through working with teens at New Haven Residential Treatment Center, that my most effective and empowering work is done when I’m taking care of myself.  When I’m physically fit I have the energy to encourage, to try and try again and try something different to problem-solve for someone who currently don’t have what they need to help themselves.  When I’m emotionally stable, I have the personal confidence to push someone else to do their best, even when it’s scary, and I have the strength to keep doing hard things for the person even when they try to self-sabotage or even lash out at me. When I’m socially stable, I know I have a healthy support system I can depend on and I can be intentional about how I interact with the teen who I love unconditionally, always acting only to support and empower them, never asking them to support me through my own personal challenges. The teen suffering from depression is not in a healthy place. They don’t have the tools they need to support themselves through their crisis. They cannot handle your crisis as well! Don’t ask them to.  When I’m intellectually stable, I’m driven to learn all I can about what is going on for the teen- their medical health, how their diagnoses are playing into the behaviors I’m seeing, how their environments are affecting their behavior or their mood. There is so much to learn about the mental health field, and information is power! When I’m spiritually stable, I see the teen differently. I see myself differently. I’m aspiring to something higher- a higher purpose, a higher standard of living. The teen has infinitely worth. Regardless of anything they’ve ever done wrong, I have hope for them to have a healthy life, a great life.

When one or more of these areas are out of order in your life, you’re going to experience more stress than necessary. I know it seems backward to work on you first, but it’s not.  You will experience a greater capacity to serve your loved one due to your increased personal health.  You will also experience a greater quality of life and serve as an example for your loved one to follow.

Support

You know what it means to support someone. You’ve done it before. Helping a child struggling with math homework, a sibling who broke up with their boyfriend, or a friend suffering the loss of a family member; support is part of human nature. By now, you may have discovered that your support doesn’t seem to be working with your loved one like it used to or like it does with others.  Your loved one has an illness, an illness that dominates their thoughts and emotions.  A doctor would support a person with a physical illness by administering antibiotics, not just wishing them a “get well soon”. In that same manner, you’ll need to do something additionally, or differently, than what you’re already doing to support your loved one through their mental illness. You know how to talk to your loved one.  You’re not doing it wrong. You’ll just also need to learn how to talk to their depression.  You’ll need to change or perhaps, just improve, the way you listen and the way you respond to them.

I asked the teens I work with to tell me what people did that helped them the most. Their answers were simpler than I expected. The overwhelming top responses were: “Just listen,” “just hug me,” or “tell me you love me no matter what.” It’s hard to listen without giving advice or reacting to what you’re being told; it’s critical you learn this skill because it creates what we call emotional safety. It is also critical that you are able to separate your teen from their depression.  Their needs are entirely different with depression than without.  Your teen’s depression needs to know you’re really listening and that you truly care about them, despite their faults and failures.

The depression doesn’t want to be told you understand, because it thinks it’s the only one who knows that unique pain. In reality, you may have experienced depression, or some other similar emotion, at some point and you may know what it feels like, so try just changing your language to validate their emotions without making their depression defensive to what you’re trying to express. Instead of saying, “I know what that feels like” try saying, “It must have been hard for you to feel incapable, I felt the same when…” It’s important not to make the conversation about you but to let them know you’re trying to understand and connect with them on their level.

Priorities and Strengths

Life is filled with many priorities each day, from hygiene, eating, and household chores to working, going to school, staying fit, and fulfilling social and spiritual pursuits. Take a minute to recall each individual task your loved one would complete in an average day.  Due to decreased energy, a common symptom of depression, your loved one is likely not as productive as they once were. This can be very frustrating, because those of us without depression can’t understand why they can’t “just do it”.  But they can’t, at least not right now. Depression makes life’s average tasks seem overwhelming or even impossible. You’ll need to let go of what they could accomplish in the past, and accept that right now they can’t do all they used to do. They can, however, learn to be more productive, which is where priorities and strengths come into play.

What are your loved one’s priorities? You may need to help them decide or even decide for them, if you’re working with a teen. For most adults, attending a job regularly isn’t an option, it’s a requirement. So, for an adult- that would be a priority, along with completing basic hygiene and personal health tasks.  Each situation is unique, so you’ll need to decide what the priorities are for your situation. Weed out the extras, so the day doesn’t seem so daunting.  Something I’ve found that helps with the teens I work with is to create priorities for them where they can use their strengths. The feeling of accomplishment or interest is a powerful motivator to for anyone to keep doing hard things. If your loved one needs some time with animals or the great outdoors, or if they have a talent for playing the piano—whatever it is—make that a priority for them!

Baby Steps are Good

Learning to live with depression isn’t going to be an overnight success. New habits take time to learn and even more time to really sink in. Once upon a time, baby steps were enough, let them be enough again. It’s difficult to be patient because it doesn’t always seem like something is wrong. We can’t see the depression. We don’t understand it like we understand physical illnesses or other mental illnesses. But we know it’s there and we should be as patient with our loved ones fighting depression as we are with loved ones fighting physical illnesses. Despite the natural drive to do everything bigger and better and improve and grow along with the rest of the world, let’s remind ourselves that baby steps are really how we all learn and grow. Baby steps are good.

By, Brinda Green

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