How to Check On Loved Ones With Anxiety and Depression, According to Therapists

woman looking sad


As many countries around the world begin to reinstate lockdown restrictions to mitigate the second wave of COVID-19, many of us have found ourselves back to where we started nine months ago: working from home in our sweats and isolated from friends and family with no end date in sight. Only now, it's the holidays. Of course, following proper quarantine procedures is extremely important to help combat the spread of the virus and ensure as many people as possible stay safe—but the mental health implications of a new lockdown can’t be ignored. According to a study from University College London that surveyed 90,000 adults in the United Kingdom, feelings of anxiety and depression spiked during the country’s first lockdown between March and May. And unsurprisingly so: It’s been an extremely tough year, and being physically separated from your support network can be understandably difficult to handle.

With new restrictions being implemented now, you may be wondering how to best support those who may need support during these difficult times,  or even how to best approach your friends for their support. According to Julia Katzman, LMSW, a St. Louis-based therapist at Plan Your Recovery, it’s totally normal to feel uncomfortable checking in on your friends’ mental health—but no less important. “If you’re not a licensed mental health professional, it’s okay to feel a little weird about checking in on your friends. Heck, a lot of other therapists who I know struggle to find the right ways to check in on friends,” she says. So, what’s the best way to reach out to people for support—both to offer and ask for it as lockdown restrictions make their way back into our lives?

Learn What to Look For in Yourself and Others

First things first, know the signs that might indicate you need extra support, or that your friends might need extra support. In yourself, it might be that you find yourself withdrawing from everyday activities, which is often a sign of depression. Or, if you find yourself experiencing more obsessive thoughts or difficulty sleeping, this could be a sign of anxiety.

In your friends, Katzman notes this might be tougher to pinpoint, but she offers the following advice: Your friend might be speaking with an unusually slow cadence of speech on the phone or on video calls, they may say that they’re constantly exhausted, they may talk about getting plenty of sleep but still feeling tired, they may say that they feel guilty over things they can’t control, or they might respond to texts slower than normal.” Katzman notes that just because a friend says any of these things, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re struggling with depression—but it could be an indicator that someone might be up. Sabrina Romanoff, PsyD, a NYC-based clinical psychologist, suggests calling or FaceTiming your friends instead of texting or messaging them, so it’ll be easier for you to assess how they might be feeling.

When Reaching Out, Let Them Guide the Conversation

Remember, the most important thing you want to make sure you do is be a supportive presence—not an overwhelming one. So if you think a friend needs support, the best script to start off with is one that lets them know you’re there for them, but also lets them know that they’re in control of the conversation. “Say: ‘It looks like things have been challenging for you recently. What’s been on your mind and what can I do to help?’” Romanoff suggests. “This shows that you see them and their struggle. It's much more effective than starting off with ‘how are you doing,’ because people often don’t answer that question truthfully, and struggle with both revealing their struggle to others and ascertaining that others can hold it. 

“Asking what’s on their mind opens up the space and shows you’re receptive to whatever is going on for them. Asking what you can doto help is showing your commitment to support them, and can be followed up with tangible actions like going for a walk, watching a joint movie together, reminiscing over funny stories, or being a listening ear.”

Kelly Anderson, Ph.D, a San Diego-based therapist at Wellness Therapy of San Diego, offers a similar script suggestion: “Hi, I've been thinking about you and wanted to see how you're doing. I know this lockdown has been so hard for everyone. I've had my share of tough days. How are you coping with the lockdown?”

Remember: Don't Judge

Additionally, make sure you avoid offering any suggestions of what you think they should be doing with their time. Although your intentions might be positive, doing anything other than just listening could overwhelm them. “Depression is a motivational disease,” Katzman notes. “[It] makes activities that once felt simple, like making lunch or taking a shower, feel like climbing a mountain. That’s something that people might really struggle to understand if they’ve never personally been depressed.

So if you’re checking in on a friend, be mindful of your own expectations and try to suspend your own judgments on what that friend should be doing/what they should not be doing. It can be really tempting to tell a depressed person to just go and do the thing that they’re struggling to do, but all that will do is alienate the depressed person.” Instead, Katzman suggests that you talk to your friend about how it could be easier for them to find things they might enjoy doing. “Meet the person where they’re at, not where you think they should be.”

If You Need Support, Be Honest With Your Support Group

Saba Lurie, LMFT
, the owner and founder of Take Root Therapy in Los Angeles, suggests first identifying your support network, and then being honest with yourself and them. “If you are needing some extra support during lockdown, identify friends and family who are likely to be supportive and who you feel safe asking for support. When you reach out, try to be clear and honest about what you need. It can help to name that you are currently struggling, or that you're concerned about how the next few months will be in lockdown,” she says. “Ask if they would be open to doing x, y, or z (this could include calling you once a week just to check in, going on a socially distanced walk together from time to time, or just randomly checking in with you when they can). Maybe offer to do the same!”

Katzman notes that realizing you might need extra support during these challenging times is a huge step in and of itself. “For starters, congrats on taking the first step in reaching out! Like I [said before], depression is a motivational disease — it can feel easier to sink into misery rather than try to tell others that you need help,” she says. “Be honest [with your support network], and communicate in the pathway that you feel most comfortable using.”

Practice Self-Care, and Encourage Friends to Do the Same

Although self care looks different for everyone, ensuring that you’re taking time for yourself at least once a day is going to be deeply important in getting through another lockdown — and you should encourage your friends to do the same, if possible. Even something as simple as going outside to get some fresh air, for instance, is a way of practicing self care, because you’re actually motivating yourself to get out of the house. Katzman suggests using yourself and your friends as “accountability partners,” so that you are each ensuring the other is doing things they enjoy for themselves during lockdown. “For example, if you used to love going on group runs, could you go running while calling a friend through your headphones?” 

If you can’t get out of the house, however, there are still ways to practice self care indoors: As Deena Manion, PsyD, LCSW, and Clinical Officer at Westwind Recovery suggests, “try to do at least one thing that relates to self-care each day, which means something you enjoy.  If you cannot get out of the house, schedule a zoom session with friends and family, do a yoga session on YouTube, watch a comedic movie, clean your closet or organize your house to feel productive…try to keep moving.”

Anderson suggests ensuring you try to stick to a schedule as much as possible, even if you’re now at home. “Try to approximate your normal schedule to the best of your ability. If you typically wouldn't be binge-watching Netflix at 10 in the morning, don't start that now. Instead, ask yourself what you might normally do and find something that is available to you that may be similar. For example, a home workout when you may be at the gym, [or a] virtual dinner with friends instead of going out to eat.”

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