Mark Pollack, MD, chief medical officer of Myriad Neuroscience, maker of the GeneSight test, shares his thoughts on how to be a good caregiver to someone with depression. Dr. Pollack has served as chairman of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at Rush University Medical Center and director of its Mental Health Service Line. Dr. Pollack was director of the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He has served as president of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America and former chairman of its Scientific Advisory Board.
Living with and caring for family members with depression is a large – and often challenging – job. The addition of pandemic-related working and schooling from home has made the burden even more complex.
Yet, your support can make all the difference. There are so many people who struggle alone, whose loved ones are not available or willing to help.
In my experience, one of the best ways to help is by being informed.
Get Help, Keep Talking, Self Care
Caregiving is not easy – and it’s especially not easy when the person you are caring for has depression. We shared a post on the GeneSight website that included this sentiment that may be all too familiar for caregivers:
“…unfortunately, we live in a world where if you break a bone, everyone comes to sign the cast. But if you tell people you are depressed, they run the other way.”
Depression does not just impact the person struggling. Everyone around them may be affected.
What I have learned in my many years of working to help people with depression is that persistence is key. Many people who are struggling with depression do not have the energy to find the help they need. It may fall to caregivers, loved ones, to those who care about them, to help them connect with the care they need.
Here are three pieces of advice that I hope will be helpful for caregivers.
1. Get Your Loved Ones the Help They Need
Unfortunately, there are many barriers to accessing mental healthcare: insurance, availability of practitioners, finding medication or therapy that helps. Further, stigma is a real issue for many people – of different cultures, ethnicities, and religious influences.
For an older generation that was taught to keep a stiff upper lip, stigma about addressing mental health issues may be even more ingrained. In fact, in late 2020, the GeneSight® Mental Health Monitor, a nationwide poll, showed that nearly two-thirds (61%) of Americans age 65 or older who have concerns about having depression will not seek treatment. In fact, nearly 1 in 3 (33%) seniors who are concerned they might be suffering from depression believe they can “snap out” of it on their own.
The ‘pull yourself up by your bootstraps’ mindset of some seniors and reluctance to talk about mental health are hindering them from getting the help they need.
We need to change the public perception about depression and recognize that it is not a moral failing but rather an illness, like heart disease or diabetes that can and should be treated.
2. Keep Talking
It can be awkward to bring up someone else’s mental health challenges, but initiating the conversation can actually reduce the sense of shame and isolation for someone who may be “suffering in silence.” It is important to recognize that asking someone about suicidal thoughts or plans doesn’t cause them to have them; in fact, it may be a relief for the individual to discuss these troubling thoughts and even be a potentially life-saving intervention. People often feel like they are a burden, whether they are young or old. They may feel like the world and their family would be better off without them. It weighs on them. Help them to articulate it.
Patience, compassion, and active listening can help. For some individuals talking to them about feeling “stressed” as opposed to “depressed” may be less likely to engender defensiveness or denial. Similarly, talking to or encouraging them to talk with their clinician about their depression symptoms like sleep disturbance or loss of appetite or energy, may be a more acceptable way for them initiate the conversation about their mood.
3. Take Care of Yourself
Just because you are filling this incredibly important role of caregiver does not mean you should neglect your own mental health. In fact, you will not be as effective a caregiver if you do NOT address your own needs. Make sure that you are doing what you can to keep yourself as physically and emotionally resilient as possible.