How to Ask For Help--or Help Someone--With Depression
As a man who lived with depression, I know how hard it is to ask for help.
This is especially true for men because society wants us to be big and strong and not share our feelings.
This is unacceptable.
So I'm going to share what I learned from my experience with depression.
In the process, I'll give you several tips on how to ask for help with your depression.
My story wasn't a pleasant one, and I'm a bit embarrassed that, even though I was well-versed in mental health and the mental health care system, I wasn't able to do more when I was struggling.
My Bad Experiences Reaching Out For Help
Depression is brutal.
It's the hardest thing I've ever been through, and I've been through broken bones and open-heart surgery.
Mental health challenges and suicidal thoughts top all of the other struggles I've had.
And, several years ago, when I was really struggling, I desperately wanted help. I tried to allude to it at work, but I was met with blank stares and, "Well, once you finish this task you'll be fine."
Then, I'd come back for another meeting, and I'd get disappointed looks and comments that suggested, "You're still not ok? Stop being so stressed out."
I know that part of this was my own depression talking. Because I was so sleep-deprived, I wasn't able to think straight. I thought that everyone was disappointed with me. I thought that I was being a burden to everyone I was around.
It's this mindset that's so common with depression that makes it so hard to ask for help. Depression symptoms can take all shapes and forms, but the most common ones are feelings of intense sadness, being overwhelmed, not sleeping, and seeing everything through a negative light.
And it doesn't only apply to confusion and impatience coming from work colleagues. Family members, partners, and other loved ones can easily get drained by a person's depression. It's hard work to time and time again show your support for a loved one who's never happy and never seems to get better.
This is why mental health professionals exist. The sad and tragic problem is that it's often impossibly difficult to get the care you need from qualified mental health professionals.
That was certainly the case when I was trying to get help with my depression.
Trying to Find Proper Treatment and an Effective Treatment Plan
It's not like I wasn't trying. I was a state employee at the time, so I had access to the state health clinic.
I went in for a regular appointment. Before this particular appointment, I was instructed to fill out a questionnaire to describe the reason for my visit. I believe the reason for this appointment was a typical check up to get a heart medication filled. There, on the form, I saw two questions that are now, fortunately, becoming more common in the health care world.
They had to do with my mood over the last two months. Even though I was scared, I answered them both with a "YES," that I had been seriously struggling with not feeling happy for a long time.
Phew, I thought. A doctor will finally be able to help me with this.
Prior to that appointment, I had not had success with a psychiatrist in the area. She behaved in rude, abrupt ways and had made comments like, "This is why you're here with me. Because you're sick. I know best."
And her comments came when I was trying to share about the horrible side effects I was getting from whatever pills she was prescribing for me. They were making the situation so much worse, but the psychiatrist kept blaming it on me, no matter what.
I've since realized, now that I'm a social worker, that the best health care treatment involves an empathetic, client-centered focus. That psychiatrist didn't have that approach, so I turned to the state clinic doctor that I got along with.
Turns out, I was striking out there as well.
I tried to mention how unhappy I had been over the last few months, about how I struggled to keep it all together at work. I tried to tell the doctor that I was feeling depressed.
"You're just tired. You just need to sleep."
He prescribed me low-dose sleeping pills and a random med that's typically used for children who have trouble focusing. It seemed bizarre at the time, but I did what he told.
And this was when it all got so much worse. The medicine he gave me amplified suicidal thoughts that I was starting to have. It made them at least 10 times worse.
Alongside all of that, I had been passed off from my therapist of several years to a new, much less experienced one.
My first therapist was great with relational issues, and he helped me figure out how attachment theory explained many of my relationship issues. He helped me understand how my family environment affected how I acted in other relationships, especially intimate ones. For that, he was great.
But when I started telling him that I was tired all the time, that I couldn't sleep, and that I couldn't stop being anxious and picking at my skin, he didn't know what to do.
"Oh, you know that's just checking behavior. You know better than that." He was referring to my skin-picking. "What else is going on?"
I kept coming back to the same issues. I was ruminating, another symptom of depression.
He didn't want to hear it anymore, and he referred me to someone who had no business being a therapist and practicing "talk therapy."
She was an older woman who went back to school for counseling later in life as a "hobby."
I only had a few sessions with her, but what it boiled down to is that she tried to make me do some visualization techniques that involved me being in pink room.
Never mind that I'm physically unable to visualize and so it's never been effective for me. Some people literally can't see images in their heads, and I'm one of them. That didn't deter her, and she seemed to take it personally when I said I just didn't want to work with her anymore.
So many things were going wrong, and I didn't have the energy to keep advocating for myself on top of a demanding workload and trying to balance being a good partner, friend, and son.
At this point, you're probably wondering what happened. Obviously, I made it through and I'm here to write three issues a week for this mental health newsletter.
It's time to reveal what I learned.
How I Asked For Help With Depression
1 - Be Direct
Having depression makes it extremely difficult to be direct with others.
I always felt like I was being a burden. But I didn't get the help I needed until I directly asked for it, until I took my life in my own hands and went to the hospital emergency room.
That's what it took. I felt so ashamed at the time, but it was the absolute best decision I could have made.
If therapists won't help you, find a doctor. If doctors won't help you, find another one. This is your life we're talking about.
Depression can make you feel like you're worthless, and it's not true.
You have value, and you always have.
Do whatever it takes to directly ask for help.
For instance, you could turn to a friend or family member and say, "I'm really struggling. I need help. I've been feeling depressed for months." Often, the simplest requests are the strongest.
Don't deviate from the story. You know your experiences.
And this leads me to point number two.
2 - Don't Stop Until You Get the Help You Need
There were plenty of times that I felt like giving up.
Depression is no joke. It's a horrendous illness that steals the energy and lives of too many people. That's why I'm sharing my story. To give you hope. To let you know that there is a light at the end of the dark tunnel.
Whatever it takes, don't stop. And I mean it--whatever it takes.
Here are a few ideas.
Write down what you're grateful for.
Stick post-it note reminders where you'll see them.
Ask a close friend to check in on you ever week.
In work settings, you may have heard of the term "manage up." It's when you communicate in a proactive way to your manager how you need to be managed. It seems strange. It seems forceful. But in the long run, it gives you and your manager a common language to speak. People aren't mind readers. The sinister thing about mental illnesses is that they remain hidden until the behavioral and verbal clues appear.
Keep advocating for yourself. You're worth every ounce of life you put into this world.
3 - Don't Ignore Unlikely Sources of Help
Something strange happens when you start to share your story. When I started to write and talk about my mental health issues years ago, people started coming out of the woodwork.
People I never expected to have mental health stories started to share them with me. And, suddenly, my world got smaller.
Mere acquaintances turned into good friends. Distant work colleagues offered their support.
When you share your story, don't be surprised if you get words of affirmation and shows of support from the unlikeliest of places. That just means the universe is listening.
It's not your responsibility to judge where help comes from.
It's your responsibility to accept the support and allow it to change your life.
4 - Don't Downplay What You're Feeling
Last, but certainly not least, do not downplay what you're feeling.
Depression is like a cruel joke where everyone else is on it, and you're left to guess what the punchline is.
Or so your brain would want you to believe...
When the sound is turned down in the world, when everything feels empty and bleak, I want you to remember something important:
This is your life, your one life. It has value, and you have value.
Only you can communicate how you're feeling to the world--no one else can do it for you. When you downplay what you're feeling, you're not doing your part to allow others to help you.
We live in a society where we praise the saviors and ignore the ones who need help. But positions in life change constantly. Learning how to accept help graciously is one of the best skills you can learn, even if it doesn't feel like it at the time.
To help others, you must first learn to accept help. To be the light for others, you need to know what their darkness feels like.
Don't get me wrong, though. Depression is serious. It's not a fad. It's not something that influencers can try on for size to get more followers. It's an illness that can sometimes be fatal.
In Conclusion - The reality is that diseases like cancer inspire immediate action. Depression does not.
That's why I share my stories. That's why I do my best to put mental health issues into terms that are accessible and actionable.
What I hope you do after you read these ways to ask for help is to put them into action, either for yourself or for someone else.
There is no one perfect way to ask for help.
If you take anything from these past two issues, I hope you realize that asking for help is not a sign of weakness.
It's something that transcends the spectrum of mental illness to mental health.
Asking for help is one of the clearest signs of human potential that you and I have.
So I beg you to fulfill your potential, no matter what it looks like.