Depressed relatives need compassion

Better minds better living with Dr. Yansie Rolston Monday, September 18 2017

AS I open my emails there are five messages from the same person with the subject “My family don’t care” all cataloguing what he perceives to be his family’s negative behaviours towards him.

The gist is that his emotional and mental distress is exaggerated by the way in which his family reacts to him now that he is overwhelmed with the symptoms of depression.

According to him, “they don’t care, they too wicked. They feel cussing and threatening me every day will help me, but they don’t understand they making things worse. I stay lock up in my room to keep away from them and they getting vex because I in my room.

They telling people I lazy and don’t want to work. They don’t know how bad I want to get out the house and go to work. They don’t know how deep this depression thing is. They make me feel like nothing, like a nobody.” Depression is quite common which is why the World Health Organisation (WHO) launched the Depression: Let’s Talk campaign.

Estimates are that there are over 300 million people worldwide with depression. Therefore, it is highly probable that every one of us will have some sort of interaction with someone coping with depression, but unfortunately there is still a lack of awareness, clarity, and know-how when it comes to interacting with a family member living with the condition.

There is so much that those who have experienced the symptoms of depression will want others to know. But for the most part it is about understanding the nature of the challenges, and being aware of the ways in which other people’s interactions with them could be perceived and received.

Mental health stigma and discrimination continue to be permeated throughout society –even by those who are themselves living with its challenges. But, negative criticism, comments and behaviours whether intentional or not, hurt even more when it comes from family members or loved ones.

Interacting with a family member who is coping with the symptoms of depression can be physically and mentally exhausting, and it is quite OK to feel frustrated and angry about the situation. But at the same time, it is worth remembering that there is a person behind the behaviours who is undergoing a personal battle to keep themselves well.

Many people coping with depression want others to know that when they are in the clutches of an episode they lose interest in things that they would normally enjoy, such as reading or interacting with social media. They also want others to know that their energy levels and concentration can be so depleted that most things become a chore, and that causes them to struggle to carry out some of the most mundane day-to-day activities such as getting out of the bed; having a shower; preparing a meal; tidying up their surroundings, or going for a walk.

They would want others to know that depression is not a choice and their lack of engagement in conversation or activities is not because they are being rude, stand-offish, snobbish or lazy. It is just that they may not have the mental, physical or emotional strength to do what others will view as being easy, and that they are probably just using up their last energy reserves trying to make sense of their lived experiences and find ways to move forward. Those with depression want others to know that they too experience their own fair share of frustrations, anger and helplessness at the situation, but it is not a case of them just “snapping out of it”, because if they could they would. They would want others to know that it is counter-productive to project and impose one’s own expectations and interpretations on to others, especially when those expectations are being placed on someone who is going through their own emotional struggles. The last thing they will need when they are in what is often described as a black hole, is to feel burdened, or to feel that they are being a burden. Nor do they want to be unduly chastised, berated or punished, because that can then cause them to withdraw and isolate even further, which will hinder recovery.

It is apparent that most families want to do what is best for their loved one, and set out to do what they consider to be beneficial in assisting their well-being. Unfortunately, in some instances the lack of knowledge, awareness and understanding can have the opposite effect. What helps people managing their depression is for the interactions with their families to be done with compassion, empathy, respect and love.

Dr Yansie Rolston FRSA is a UK-based disability and mental health specialist advisor. She is a social strategist and trainer who works internationally at various levels of government, business and civil society. Contact her at 

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