Warning Signs of Depression in a Family Member

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can significantly impact a sufferer’s life. People of all ages live with it, and the mental illness can take many forms. Some of the most common depression diagnoses include:

  • Major depressive disorder
  • Seasonal affective disorder (SAD)
  • Bipolar disorder (also known as manic depression)
  • Postpartum depression
  • Situational depression

Depending on its severity, this mental health issue may interfere with every aspect of a person’s life, from their mood to their appetite to how well they sleep at night. While everyone will experience depression differently and each form has its own unique symptoms, there are common warning signs you should be aware of if you’re concerned a loved one is struggling. Our guide discusses the warning signs of depression in a family member and how you can help them find the care they need to reclaim their life from this debilitating illness.

What are the warning signs of depression in a family member?

Every person is unique, and the way depression affects each individual is different. However, there are several common warning signs that a loved one is suffering with this silent illness. If you notice a family member or friend has any of these symptoms — especially if they have more than one and seem to be experiencing them for longer than two weeks — they may have a serious mental health condition that should be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible. 

Extreme feelings. Sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, and guilt are all classic signs of depression, especially if they don’t seem to have a root cause. For example, if your loved one hasn’t had any major life changes recently but seems upset all the time, they may have a mental health issue. Even bouts of euphoria can indicate a problem, because some types of depression (most notably bipolar disorder) are characterized by periods of extreme joy followed by incredible lows. Children and teenagers with depression often display these symptoms, and although their constantly-changing bodies and minds sometimes play a role, don’t ignore these signs if they seem severe or out of the ordinary.

Disinterest. Just as troubling as severe low feelings is being numb to the world around you. Someone who seems to have lost the interest or motivation to participate in parts of their life they used to enjoy may be in trouble.

Indications of self-harm. If someone shows unexplained scratches, cuts, scars, or bruising, they could be inflicting harm upon themselves, a huge red flag for depression. Similarly, if they start wearing clothing that covers most of their skin, especially during warm months when it’s too hot to wear long sleeves and pants, they may be hiding signs of self-harm.

Increased substance use. Someone who consumes alcohol regularly or who uses drugs, especially illegal substances or those they don’t have a need or prescription for, to numb their pain may be going through a serious emotional hardship, including depression. 

Major changes in appetite. Someone who drastically changes their eating habits, whether because they never seem to be hungry or are constantly ravenous, may have an issue.

Extreme fatigue. If your loved one is spending an unusual amount of time sleeping, especially at odd hours — as soon as they get home from work or a few hours after they wake up on their day off, for instance — they could be suffering from depression. Even if they aren’t sleeping excessively, severe lethargy is a warning sign.

Difficulty sleeping. Some people with depression have difficulty sleeping, even when they’re feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. They may wake up throughout the night, have trouble falling asleep, or go days in a row without any shuteye.

Unexplained physical pain. Depression doesn’t just affect the mind — it also affects the body. It can even manifest as physical pain. If a loved one has symptoms that don’t seem to make sense, such as unexplained headaches, back pain, or stomach issues, depression could be to blame.

Low sex drive. If your partner suddenly stops showing interest in being intimate, especially if you’ve always enjoyed a healthy sex life with each other, the physical and emotional effects of depression could be playing a role.

Bringing up the subject of death often. Talking about death a lot, especially their own, is a huge red flag that something serious is going on, and it’s often a precursor for people who attempt suicide. 

Does my depressed family member need treatment?

People with depression should always seek treatment. However, there is no one-size-fits-all method of caring for this mental health issue, and what will work best for your loved one may be completely different than what works for someone else.

For those with severe depression, it’s important to contact a mental health professional. These specialists will likely recommend regular therapy sessions, and they may also prescribe anti-depression and/or anti-anxiety medication for the short or long term. For severe cases, going to an in-patient facility for several days, weeks, or even months may be necessary. These treatment centers work with patients to get to the root of their depression, create coping techniques, and move forward in a healthy and productive way.

What is the relationship between depression and addiction?

The relationship between depression and addiction is complicated. A mental health disorder can fuel substance abuse, and using drugs or alcohol can trigger a depressive episode. People struggling with addiction usually have a co-occurring condition — which is often depression — and it’s very difficult to effectively treat one issue without addressing the other. If your family member is showing signs of addiction, they will benefit from addiction therapy that also works to treat any underlying depression or other mental illness they’re suffering from.

What should I do if my family member is depressed?

If your loved one talks about suicide or you have any other reason to believe they’re in danger of harming themselves, call 911 immediately. Even if they’re not in immediate danger, there are things you can do to show them you love them and to support them in getting the help they need to take back their life.

Find a compassionate way to bring up a conversation about your concerns. If they haven’t yet reached out for help from you, other family members or friends, or a mental health professional, finding a way to let them know you’re concerned for their well-being is a good first step. Letting them know you’re worried may be the key that opens their mind to the idea that they don’t have to continue suffering in silence.

Find a way to have this conversation privately, and try not to use confrontational language. For example, you could meet for a cup of coffee and gently say, “I’ve noticed you seem to be acting different from your normal self lately. Is everything OK?” This opens the door for them to let you know what’s going on without feeling like they’re being accused of something. If they’re not receptive to your concern and insist nothing is wrong, allow the conversation to move on, and when the time is right, try again at another time.

Educate yourself — but keep an open mind. Taking some time on your own to learn about depression can bring you peace of mind, which will be essential for helping your family member through this difficult time. Remember, though, that depression is a different shade of blue on everyone who wears it. Reading the science behind it and others’ experiences with enduring it will shed some light, but it shouldn’t be taken as the rule, because it might feel completely different for your loved one.

Listen without judgment. Depression is an awful illness — it makes people think they’re alone and that no one could possibly understand what they’re going through. One of the best things you can do to support a loved one with the illness is just listen to them. Let them talk about what’s bothering them, what they think they’re missing from their life, or even just their day. Simply being able to speak and be heard means a lot. Also be willing to let them lead the conversation. It’s great when you want to relate to them, but don’t try to act like you understand exactly what they’re going through, and try not to overwhelm them with questions. You don’t have to sit in silence, but don’t monopolize your conversations or make them about you.

Be patient. Even if you offer a listening ear, your loved one may not be willing to accept it right away. Furthermore, you may not understand what they’re trying to communicate to you. How can they feel lonely when they’ve got so many friends? How can they be so sad when they have a loving family, a good job, and a full bank account? That’s the terrible thing about depression — it doesn’t make sense, especially to the person suffering from it. Try to be patient, and know your family member is doing the best they can.

Do what you can to lower their stress. If a family member who lives with you has depression, try to find ways to create a more peaceful home environment. Can you help reduce their workload by pitching in more with cooking, completing chores, and running errands? Would your home benefit from a decluttering session to create a less chaotic living space? Is there a household issue that you can arrange to have taken care of that would ease some stress, such as a broken AC system?

Encourage them to get professional help. There is only so much you can do to support your loved one, and you’re not qualified to give them the psychiatric or other help they need. (Even if you’re a mental health professional, it’s not common to treat someone you are related to or know personally. It’s hard to remain objective when treating someone you care about, and it’s difficult for patients to open up to professionals they have a personal relationship with.) Reaching out for help is hard — many people feel that having a mental health condition like depression is a character weakness and don’t recognize it as the medical issue it truly is. 

Do what you can to help them realize they don’t have to fight this battle on their own. While no two people are exactly alike and everyone experiences depression differently, there is a lot of help available, and people are treated for it every day with great success.

Direct them to other resources. Your family member may not be ready to get one-on-one therapy, and they may not realize there are other ways to get help. If they’re reluctant to seek treatment on their own, offer them these options as possible solutions:

  • Specialists at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are available by phone 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255); those who are deaf or hard of hearing should call 1-800-799-4889. The organization can also be reached via online chat by visiting SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.
  • There are various mental health support groups where individuals share their experiences in an anonymous, judgment-free atmosphere. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA) offers a free search tool for finding local groups.
  • There are websites and apps that connect patients with mental health professionals who offer their services online, and some don’t require insurance. These services are a good option for those who are ready to receive help but are intimidated by the idea of therapy sessions in a doctor’s office.

Follow up. Even with a team of health professionals guiding them, your family member’s depression won’t be cured overnight, and it may be a condition they deal with for the rest of their life. Try to check in with them periodically to show that you care about them and that they’re important to you.

You don’t have to center all of your conversations around their depression — and you shouldn’t! Treating them the way you would anyone else you love while remaining sensitive to any struggles they’re enduring will show that you’ll be there to support them in good times and bad.

Remember: you can’t “cure” your family member’s depression, and they don’t need to be “fixed.” Your support will mean a lot to your loved one, but it’s ultimately up to them to get and accept the help they need.

Depression is an overwhelming mental illness that often changes the way sufferers view their lives, their loved ones, and the world around them. The good news is that it’s also a very treatable condition, but the first step is recognizing its warning signs — and your loved one may need your help understanding they’re experiencing a serious mental health issue. Be aware of the symptoms that indicate your friend or family member is struggling, support them in finding the help they need to begin the recovery process, and simply be there to listen and offer a loving shoulder to lean on.