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Spotting the signs of depression

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Has your workout buddy gone from having a reserved spot in the front row of Zumba to not bothering to turn up? Maybe a family member has become withdrawn and hard to get a hold of, laying low instead of joining in get-togethers.

There may be many different reasons for these behaviours, including a number of health issues, but they could also be signs of depression. 

“One of the characteristics of depression is social withdrawal,” explains Melissa O’Shea, Associate Professor of Clinical Psychology at Deakin University. 

Down or depressed?

While it’s normal for our moods to fluctuate and sadness to creep in occasionally, it’s different to being depressed.

“Feeling down at times is part of the normal adult emotional experience, particularly in response to difficult events and losses,” says Assoc Prof O’Shea. “When someone is depressed, however, the lows are lower, they’re lasting for longer periods of time and are impacting  that person’s life in negative ways.” 

The chance of someone you know being depressed isn’t uncommon. It’s estimated that one in six people will experience depression in their lifetime, with rates about twice as high for women than men. 

Reaching out

Your friend may not tell you that they’re depressed, and they might not even recognise that they are. If you suspect that’s the case, it doesn’t hurt to gently ask, as this can show them that you care and give them a chance to be open about how they’re feeling. 

Just remember that your role as a friend is to support them, not to try to “fix” them or work out why they’re depressed – they might not know why themselves. 

“Depression is often a very internal experience and it does not always have an obvious cause,” says Assoc Prof O’Shea. “Sometimes there are many factors in a person’s life that are very positive, but because of the condition, they’re not able to see them.” 

Find ways to connect with your friend and listen to them without judgement. Ask how you can best help them and what they need from you – it may be a supportive ear instead of actual advice. They may want space, so respect their boundaries, but don’t forget to check in with them every now and then. 

Moving together

Exercise has been shown to help alleviate the symptoms of depression and aid recovery. 

“We think it has a range of positive effects, including improving sleep as well as countering low motivation and activity that leads to a vicious cycle,” explains Deakin University’s Dr Subhadra Evans. 

Exercise also increases self-confidence and improves general health, which can both wane with depression. 

A recent study found that just 10-30 minutes of daily exercise can improve mood, so start small. Suggest a short walk or see if your friend wants to join you for a yoga session. 

“Yoga can be a good start to re-engaging in exercise for people suffering depression,” says Dr Evans. 

When to call for help

It can be difficult to know when to seek professional help for a depressed friend. While seeking support themselves can be an important part of a depressed person’s recovery, Assoc Prof O’Shea recommends you do this for them if they’re either unable to. 

Your first steps should be: 

1. Taking your friend to a GP to get or build on their mental health plan.

2. Calling a local mental health service to connect your pal with professional support.

Remember that while you have an important role in helping your friend, you’re not responsible for them or their health. They might need a helping hand at the moment, but as their recovery progresses, generally they’ll be able to take back control of their decision-making around their own health choices. 

Words by Samantha Alleman