Why does your friend or family member struggle to overcome depression? It might be because of the stigma of getting treated for depression.

Helping a friend or loved one overcome depression

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The struggle is real for someone with depression. It’s not only because of the symptoms, either. People fear how society will perceive them. It can make situations like finding a job, forming a relationship and finding housing difficult.

This social stigma makes those suffering from depression reluctant to get help. However, Lauren King, Psy.D., a licensed clinical psychologist at Sentara RMH Medical Center, says awareness can help.

“A lot of people believe depression is something that you can completely control,” Dr. King explains. “People will say, ‘Just smile. You’ll feel better.’ Individuals who’ve never had it don’t realize how hard it is, and sometimes even view it as a weakness.”

“It’s important to make the public aware of what depression really is, and that anyone can experience it any age,” she adds.

Here’s what depression may look like, how the stigma stalls treatment and how to help those in need.

Symptoms And Causes Of Depression

Depression can have many symptoms, but Dr. King says the following are common ones to watch for:

  • Sad, depressed mood
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Sleeping too much or not sleeping enough
  • Eating too much or not eating enough
  • Low energy
  • Poor concentration and trouble making decisions
  • Feelings of worthlessness, excessive guilt or suicidal thoughts

“To be diagnosed with depression, these symptoms have to persist through most of the day, every day, for two weeks,” Dr. King says.

While the symptoms are pretty clear-cut, what is less clear is the cause.

“Substance abuse, anxiety and personality disorders often occur with depression. The cause and effect relationship isn’t exactly clear, but these factors certainly exist alongside depression,” Dr. King explains.

“Depression may also come from a family history of depression. It’s in your genes combined with certain life events, such as childhood abuse or major life stressors,” she says.

No matter the cause, depression symptoms aren’t completely unmanageable. And with the exception of suicidal thoughts, it is not necessarily a life-threatening condition. However, it affects daily work performance, relationships and overall self-care.

That’s why treatment is necessary.

Stigma Prevents Treatment

No one has control over family history and how it may increase someone’s risk for depression. Yet, the stigma is so powerful that people often blame themselves and avoid treatment—even though treatment has been shown to work.

“Cognitive-behavioral therapy combined with medication is the gold standard for treatment of depression, and research has spoken to this method’s power,” Dr. King explains.

Cognitive therapy works on changing people’s thoughts and beliefs. Behavioral therapy targets people’s actions. Cognitive-behavioral therapy addresses both while also focusing on problem-solving skills.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has been shown to help those suffering from depression to restructure their negative thought patterns, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH). By reframing how they view the events in their lives, they can increase positive interaction with others.

In minor to moderate cases of depression, CBT may be enough to treat the symptoms by itself. Other cases may require the combination of CBT and medication. But stigma can be a barrier to getting the right treatment.

“They feel embarrassed without understanding that mental health professionals are specifically trained with this stigma in mind and are not judgmental in the slightest,” Dr. King clarifies.

“What will frequently happen is individuals suffering from depression will instead report physical symptoms, such as a headache, because these physical symptoms are more accepted,” she adds.

Hiding mental illness means getting treatment is less likely to happen. Given that effective therapy is available for those who suffer from depression, what can be done to help?

Ways To Work With A Loved One Struggling With Stigma

Overcoming stigma and becoming better educated makes treatment more likely.

“One way to overcome the stigma is to get people to understand that depression is more commonplace than you think. Just as you would seek treatment for a broken leg or high blood pressure, you have to get treated for depression,” Dr. King explains.

One of the best ways to help someone overcome the stigma is by offering support. Make sure that those experiencing depression realize they have someone in their corner.

Here are 4 tips from Dr. King on how to lend support to those going through depression:

  1. Be aware of the signs of depression, and ask about how those symptoms began
  2. Make sure they understand they won’t be judged because they have depression
  3. Encourage them to start and continue with treatment
  4. Help them find resources on how to deal with their symptoms

“Depression has been mentioned as one of the nation’s top five disabling problems,” Dr. King adds. “So, it’s important that we do anything we can to de-stigmatize it.”