Q&A: What to Do When Your Close One Is Depressed and Rejects Communication?


Question

What do I do when my loved one feels depressed and when I try to figure out what’s going on they don’t respond to my messages and don’t pick up the phone?

Answer

It is difficult to tell without knowing more about the situation. Is this how they usually act? Is it related to you or your relationship? How “depressed” are they? Are they simply sad or overwhelmed, or is it more serious, like suicidal, self-sabotaging, or self-harmful thoughts and actions?

If no one’s well-being is in any immediate danger, I think the best way thing to do is simply talk to them when they feel a little better. Approach them with curiosity and empathy. Ask questions, express genuine compassion, be attentive and understanding. Avoid putting your own discontent above their struggles. It’s not about you right now. 

Understand that they are not doing it to hurt or upset you. They are simply emotionally overwhelmed, and their way of coping with it is to isolate themselves from the world, including you. So don’t start the conversation by angrily complaining, “Why don’t you respond to my text messages?!” Instead, you could say, “I understand that you are stressed and overwhelmed. It’s very unfortunate and painful to see you suffer like this. Would you like to tell me more about what is going on for you?”

It is important to understand that when we human beings feel depressed or overwhelmed, it’s not necessarily that we don’t know what to do. Usually we simply want support and understanding from others, or a calm, safe space to understand and regulate our emotions. When we start feeling better, we become more proactive and energetic, which leads to more productive and proactive problem-solving. But before a person gets there, they may feel completely helpless, lost, or unmotivated. You may feel tempted to try to fix things for them or offer quick solutions, but oftentimes that’s not what the person actually needs. 

Offering advice may seem helpful, and might make you feel better, but it is unlikely this is what the person needs or wants you to do unless is it specifically asked for. Unsolicited advice can actually make the person feel worse. Instead, what you can do to help a person who acts like this is to let them know that you are here for them, that you care, that you want to help if they need it. 

They may or may not accept your help, or even want to do anything for themselves, but that’s out of your control. Stay empathetic, curious, compassionate, but don’t treat them as a helpless child or a dependent. Be open to listening, be open to helping, but be open to doing nothing too if that’s more appropriate. Unless it’s infrequent or a very specific request, you don’t want to enable a dependency-laden relationship dynamic. Fundamentally, they are still a self-responsible adult; you are only here to help and support them, not to save them or continuously do things for them. You want them to eventually learn how to deal with their problems or get professional help to learn that. 

Also, never promise things to them and then not keep your promise. So if you don’t really feel like being there for them or helping them in other ways, don’t tell them that. Avoid telling them that everything is or will be okay, because you don’t know that and can’t make sure that it will be. In other words, the least helpful thing you can do to somebody when they are vulnerable is to lie to and bullshit them. Even worse is when people then make up excuses why they promised something and then didn’t keep their promise. Your close one is already upset and disillusioned with human relationships because they are isolating themselves, and this behavior would be another betrayal, which would make them feel worse overall. 

You can also express your request for a minimum amount of communication. You could say, “If you want to spend some time alone, then I understand and I won’t be bothering you. But could you at least send me a quick message and let me know that you’re OK?” If the person actually wants to be alone, respect their wishes. Don’t interrogate or moralize them, as it may make them even more sad or upset. 

Give them time and space. When talking to them, be gentle, concentrate more on them, if possible, help them feel safer and more relaxed. The safer and more relaxed they feel, the greater the chances are that they will open up. When in doubt, reassure them that you care about them and you are here if they need you, and then actually be there for them.

Good luck!
Darius


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