How can family help a loved one with depression?

By: James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC
Senior Staff Therapist
The Family Institute at Northwestern University

How can family help a loved one with depression?

The role of the family in treatment is simply to monitor and report. The family should observe the patient’s behavior and report anything that may be important to the stable functioning and health of the patient. The patient should not be interfered with directly unless, of course, s/he is a danger to themselves or others. The family’s role in treatment is a collaborative effort in communication. The family should think of themselves as team members. We are all on the same team! Keeping secrets from the doctor or therapist interferes with treatment and may ultimately have serious consequences. Families should call their doctor, therapist immediately or 911 if the patient has any of the following behaviors or symptoms, especially if they are new, worse, or worry you. Report when the patient is:

  1. Not taking their medication as prescribed.
  2. Abusing alcohol, substances or medications not prescribed by a doctor.
  3. Severely depressed, irritable, threatens violence or has thoughts of suicide or dying.
  4. Exhibits behavior which may result in injury or harm to the individual, family or community.
  5. Experiencing of any relapse warning signs, especially no sleep.
  6. Experiencing panic attacks, uncontrolled anxiety or restlessness.
  7. Acting on dangerous impulses.
  8. Exhibits unusual behavior that is out-of-character for this individual.

Family should:

  1. Avoid placing blame or guilt.
  2. Avoid enabling. You are not responsible for the patient’s wellness. S/he is!
  3. Make regular opportunities to get away from each other. Have outside interests, hobbies and social activities.
  4. Get regular exercise (doctor permitting). Join a health club or walk at least 40 minutes on regularly scheduled days each week. In the winter if needed, use a treadmill or stationary bicycle.
  5. Learn all you can about mood disorders but do not try to be a therapist.

In most cases I have treated over the years, I have seen the client get annoyed with friends and family when they say, “You seem crabby, did you take your medication today”? The typical response is “just because I’m angry or upset doesn’t mean I’ve skipped my meds”. The way I see it, if you have a history of noncompliance, you don’t have the right to be angry when asked! Take the medication as prescribed so your family doesn’t worry about compliance or need to be intrusive in your life. They should be relatively assured that you are compliant with medication and treatment. Regardless, it is the responsibility of the family to ask because the consequences of not taking it as prescribed can lead to injury and possibly suicide.

    • Monitor and report on medication compliance.
    • Monitor and report on the use of alcohol and drugs.
    • Avoid over involvement unless the person poses a danger to himself or others.
    • Avoid trying to help motivate compliance with treatment.


Now I can work via Zoom with anyone, anywhere in the country and it may still be covered by BCBS Insurance. Check with your BCBS representative for more information. Call James E. DelGenio MS, LCPC, Senior Staff Therapist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University, 847-733-4300 Ext 638.   Effective online, one on one, SAT, ACT, GRE, test preparation, via face time or skype.

Disclaimer: This material is meant to be used in conjunction with psychiatric treatment, medication, if necessary, and supportive therapy. Always share this material and your questions about this material with your doctor and therapist.

14 thoughts on “How can family help a loved one with depression?”

  1. This is the perfect site for anybody who really wants to understand this
    topic. You understand a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you
    (not that I actually will need to…HaHa). You certainly put a new spin on a topic which has been written about for many years.
    Great stuff, just wonderful!

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