Helping a depressed person

What to do if you are concerned about someone
  1. Take any distress which people talk to you about seriously – it can be very hard for veterinary professionals to reach out for help, so if someone is asking for help because they are suffering with mental health problems or intense distress that’s always important.
  2. Ask how they think you may help – people may want support in different ways at different times.
  3. Be respectful of their disclosure and don’t speak to other people about any details they provide unless you are really worried about them and what they might do. Mental health problems can cause a massive loss of self-esteem and make an unwell person feel that they are professionally worthless.  Counter these thoughts by letting them know that they are valued and helping them to rebuild their sense of worth. Don’t be surprised if your attempts to help or give advice don’t work at first. Be patient and persistent
  4. Listen to how they are feeling – make sure you’ve got time to do this, and find a quiet place to talk where you won’t be interrupted.
  5. Avoid clichéd positivity. If someone is really struggling it’s better to acknowledge that and to listen to how it feels than to tell them “cheer up” or “pull yourself together”. Where you can, acknowledge their distress and ensure that they know you have listened and heard what they have said. Don’t feel you have to solve all their problems; being a good listener can be really helpful in itself
  6. Don’t just talk about mental health, talk about other things too – mental health problems can leave people isolated, so having conversations about more ordinary topics can often be a relief for them.
  7. Spend time with the person and offer to do things together that might be enjoyable and may help them – things like exercise, walking their dog, a bike ride, or cooking and eating together.
  8. Be patient – let the person stay in control where possible and set the pace for getting help themselves. It may take time; let them know that you are there for them and check in with them again as necessary. A depressed person may struggle to connect emotionally or lash out in anger and say hurtful things – try not to take it personally. However, you should not put your own wellbeing at risk if someone is treating you poorly
  9. Support them to get more professional help if they need it – Vetlife Helpline and Samaritans are available 24 hours a day on every day of the year, including Christmas and New Year. There are also emergency GP services and A&E if you think someone is very unwell. See: In a crisis? If you’re very worried about someone and think they are at risk, stay with them and make a plan with them about how they can get help.
  10. Look after yourself as well – make sure that you are looking after your own wellbeing and have support for yourself.  Vetlife Helpline is able to offer confidential support for those concerned about a colleague.

Finding the right words

Samaritans advise that the best thing you can do is to ask questions.

  • Open questions that help someone talk through their problems instead of saying ‘yes’ or ‘no’ are the most useful
  • Pay attention and focus only on the person. Actively listening takes some effort, but doing so will let the depressed individual know that you care and have time for them. Showing someone who might feel they have nobody, that there is someone who cares and wants to give them the listening ear they need, can be really reassuring
  • Show you understand by asking follow-up questions or repeating back the key things they tell you during the conversation. Use phrases like ‘So you’re saying…’ or ‘So you think…’. Try not to be black or white in what you say, or too dogmatic, and ensure that you do not end up speaking about your own experiences unless doing so is a way of encouraging them to open up. Really importantly, do not try to solve someone’s problems as they are opening up to you. Doing so gives the message that you are uncomfortable with what they are saying; by all means do help them to solve their difficulties if you can, but do so once they have finished speaking.
  • Find out how they’re feeling too. Sometimes people will talk you through all the facts of what happened and why, but never say how they actually feel. Revealing your true emotions to someone can be a huge relief
Some possible ways to start a conversation are:
“I have been feeling concerned about you recently.”
“You seem pretty down lately so I wanted to check if you are OK.”
“How can I best support you?”
“Have you thought about getting help?”
“You are not alone. I’m here for you.”
“I may not understand exactly how you feel but I care about you and want to help.”
“Is there anything I can do now to help you?”