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How to Help a Depressed Loved One

It could be the most important conversation you'll ever have. Get expert advice on how to talk to a loved one who you think may be depressed.

By Dr. Gail Saltz from The Oprah Winfrey  Show, "An Actress, a Supermodel and a Country Star Pull Back the Veil on Depression"
Helping a loved one who's suffering from depression can be a difficult and emotional process. Psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz, author of Anatomy of a Secret Life: Are the People in Your Life Hiding Something You Should Know, offers expert advice on how you can best help a friend or relative out of the darkness.

Acknowledge that depression is an illness.

Depression can bring feelings of denial and shame in those who are suffering, so it's important to realize that your loved one can't just "snap out of it." Dr. Saltz says the first step is to realize that depression is a medical condition. "In fact, more than half of this country still believes that depression is due to personal weakness as opposed to understanding that it's an illness," Dr. Saltz says. "Treat the illness, and they can be like anyone else."

Realize that isolation is often a symptom of depression.

If you've noticed a friend or relative has stopped going out or communicating with others, this may be a sign of depression. Make yourself a regular presence in that person's life. "Part of the disease is not wanting to talk or go out," Dr. Saltz says.

Don't let a loved one isolate him or herself, Dr. Saltz says. "Push them. Say, 'I know you don't want to, but I'm not taking no for an answer. We haven't talked in awhile. I'm coming over,'" she says. "They need connection. If you're busy being polite, it won't go well."

Face-to-face conversations are ideal, Dr. Saltz says, because depressed people aren't usually very verbal. But if you are in a long-distance situation where you can't be face-to-face with that person, Dr. Saltz says to make regular phone calls. "Be persistent," she says.

Don't distance yourself from a depressed loved one.

It can be hard to be around a loved one who is depressed, but Dr. Saltz urges people to remain present in that person's life. "Most people's reaction—it isn't conscious—is to pull away, get away," Dr. Saltz says. If this is your reaction, it doesn't mean you are a bad person.

Dr. Saltz says loved ones of depressed people are sometimes afraid that if they identify with that person, they will also get pulled into the darkness. "Know that you can talk to them without feeling what they feel," she says. "You can do a great service by reaching out. You don't have to imagine what it feels like."

Recognize your own limitations and feelings.

Helping someone who is depressed isn't always easy, so don't be afraid to accept your own feelings. "Recognize you might get angry with them because it seems like they aren't trying," Dr. Saltz says. "It's important to recognize you can help but you can't make someone have treatment. You can't necessarily feel like you are responsible for them."

Don't be afraid to ask if they are suicidal.

Dr. Saltz says one of the biggest myths about depression is that you should never ask someone if they are contemplating suicide. "That's not true," says Dr. Saltz. "It's important to ask."

If you find out a friend or relative is thinking about suicide, take it very seriously—15 percent of "most people do tell someone. Sometimes it's a cry for help," Dr. Saltz says. "There's no way of knowing for sure, but if you have to go that distance to ask someone, it's not to be taken lightly."

In fact, asking someone about whether or not they are suicidal can provide some relief and open up a path to treatment, Dr. Saltz says.

If your loved one admits they are suicidal, keep asking questions.

If a friend or relative tells you they are thinking about killing themselves, Dr. Saltz says it's important to ask if they have a plan. "The suicide rate is 15 percent completions for depression," Dr. Saltz says. "Most often, they'll tell you the whole plan."

Offer to help.

When your loved one has admitted to considering suicide, Dr. Saltz says to take action immediately. There is a lower risk of suicide if they don't have an easily accessible method, so remove all potentially dangerous items. Then, find them a mental health professional immediately or drive them to the emergency room for a one-on-one intervention.

If you have a loved one who is not severely depressed but still struggling, Dr. Saltz says you should urge them to seek treatment. Say that you are aware that there are a number of treatments and that they don't have to feel bad all the time. "Sometimes they need a crowbar. If you can just offer to make a call for them or drive them to an appointment, it can mean the difference between getting help and not getting help," Dr. Saltz says.

Educate yourself.

Knowledge is power, and the more you know, the more you can help someone you love. Here are some resources that can help you save a life:

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