The four critical questions to ask somebody with depression

Olivia Lambert
·News Editor
·7-min read

No one will ever have the perfect words, but the Head of Crisis Services at Lifeline says people with depression or anxiety aren’t looking for you to solve their problems.

While it can be difficult to have uncomfortable and sometimes awkward conversations with those closest to you, Rachel Bowes said it could be a talk that could help save a life.

Ms Bowes has revealed the most important questions you can ask somebody who you think is struggling with depression, and how to encourage them to seek help.

Is there something on your mind?

It’s a simple question we’ve asked so many times before, but Ms Bowes says it’s really important to let people know you’ve noticed something is wrong.

“You can say, ‘Look, I noticed last time we were together you seemed quieter than usual, a bit withdrawn, and you’ve knocked back a couple of invitations’,” she told Yahoo News Australia as part of its What’s Up? mental health series.

Lifeline's Rachel Bowes in front of a white wall.
Head of Crisis Services at Lifeline, Rachel Bowes, reveals the important questions you should ask somebody with depression. Source: Supplied

“Just let them know of small observations you’ve made and let that person know you care enough about them to notice those things.

“Small things like that are a catalyst for conversation.”

Ms Bowes said you should then let people know you’re there to talk if they are holding back and not opening up.

“Say, ‘I’m not here to judge you’. Make yourself available to someone a bit reluctant to talk.”

Have you thought about where you might go for help?

Ms Bowes suggested as people began to open up, validate their feelings and encourage them by acknowledging their circumstances sound difficult.

She said to tell them that you’re thankful to them for sharing rather than keeping it bottled up.

“It’s about validating feelings and not being judgemental or saying they shouldn’t feel that way,” she said.

“Don’t challenge them or judge what they are doing – being non-judgemental is the most powerful thing you can do.

“Accept their experience as they are describing it to you. Have a natural conversation and say to them it sounds like they are looking for more help, and ask if they have thought about where they might go for that.

“You want to leave that conversation having agreed or at least thought about next steps, whether that be making an appointment to see a GP, speaking to HR at work, or giving Lifeline a call.

“Help them come up with a plan to seek support.”

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Ms Bowes said following the conversation people should check in with a phone call and ask how they are feeling and gently ask if they had taken any steps planned.

“Our advice, and it’s the same we do at Lifeline, is be a good listener,” she said.

“You’re there to offer support and give advice, not find a solution or fix that person’s problem.

“People aren’t looking to have their problems fixed, they want help navigating next steps.”

Have you been thinking about suicide?

While it can be a difficult question to ask, Ms Bowes said asking somebody directly about suicide was a powerful act.

“Saying, ‘Have you been thinking about suicide’, it normalises it a bit and introduces the topic and enables somebody to say yes,” she said.

A silhouette of a person is seen at the stop of a flight of stairs.
Rachel Bowes says people should approach those with depression with a non-judgemental attitude. Source: Getty

“If you say, ‘God, you haven’t been thinking about suicide have you’, they might say no because that can make them feel it is wrong.

“If you ask the question and say you hear it is common, they are not going to be as scared talking about it, and you are creating that opportunity for them to talk about the thoughts they’ve had.”

Ms Bowes said Lifeline asks every single caller that question, and if somebody says they are thinking about suicide, it’s important to then identify if there is an intention or plan that goes beyond that.

What have you thought about doing to yourself?

Ms Bowes said if somebody was having thoughts about suicide, it was important to ask what they had thought about doing to themselves.

“If they don’t really know, they are still at risk but the risk is lower,” she said.

“If they say how they would do it or are planning on it and say it’s hard to stop thinking about, then that person is in a high risk situation and it might be time for you to ring a mental health triage line or triple-0 for urgent help.”

A woman with depression curls up in bed.
Rachel Bowes has revealed how you can help a person struggling with a mental health issue. Source: Supplied

It is a question that may sound taboo, but Ms Bowes said one of the biggest misconceptions was that asking those questions would put an idea in somebody’s head.

“If somebody wasn’t thinking about suicide they aren’t suddenly going to think it’s an option, but if they have been thinking about it you could be offering them the opportunity to talk about it” she said.

“If somebody is thinking about it, those thoughts have been there the whole time.

“If you also ask if they have tried to do anything before, it opens the conversation up and you are able to say, ‘It sounds like you really need some help right now’.”

Ms Bowes said if people indicate they have plan and intent, you should go with them to see a GP and stay with them overnight if it is not possible to go until the next day.

“You can make a bit of an assessment at the time and talk openly with that person,” she said.

Ms Bowes added by talking to somebody, you’re never going to make a situation worse.

“Even if you can’t find the right words they won’t notice, they’ll just appreciate it, so don’t think you have to find the perfect words,” she said.

Dealing with mental health issues in children

According to Professor Harriet Hiscock from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, mental health is also a massive issue among children.

Research conducted by Professor Hiscock found 14 per cent of kids aged 4 to 17 met the criteria for having one or more mental health issues.

Professor Hiscock says when dealing with the mental health of a child, getting angry won’t help them despite how frustrated a parent may feel.

For young children, it’s instead important to be clear and open with them.

“If you’re dropping your child off at school explain what you’re planning on doing – when and where you’re picking them up and at what time,” Professor Hiscock said.

“If there are ongoing issues with a child – speak to your GP about the next course of action.”

Teens can be “really hard” especially if they are unwilling to open up.

But Dr Hiscock said parents “can’t give up”.

“Speak to a counsellor or teacher if you have to but also try to keep talking to them,” she said.

Readers seeking support and information about depression and suicide prevention can contact Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, Sane Australia on 1800 187263 or Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467.

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