I Think My Sister’s Depressed — What Do I Do?

breakup_slide1_maddyIllustrated by Madelyn Somers.
Ever since my sister and her girlfriend broke up last year, she’s been super depressed. I know it was hard on her, but it’s been a long time. And, it really wasn’t a good relationship in the first place. I don’t know what to say/do anymore to try and cheer her up. Any suggestions?

Routh Chadwick, Licensed Master Social Worker
Just because it didn’t seem like a good relationship to you doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important one for her. Anxiety and intensity go hand in hand, and we tend to fight the most with people we love; otherwise, you wouldn’t care enough to waste your energy. So, as much as we want the best for our friends and family, we have to be very careful not to assume we know what’s best for them.

But, I definitely understand that it can be hard to see a loved one suffering like that. The trouble is, there probably isn’t much you can do at this point to cheer her up, and of course, that can make you feel powerless. While there is no standard time frame for getting over a breakup, people can get stuck in any behavioral pattern. What started as an expected period of mourning over the loss of a relationship (no matter how bad it was) can turn into a full-blown depression if the person starts to develop a negative belief system around the event. If she has taken on a negative view of herself, is blaming herself for what happened, or is feeling that she's somehow flawed and unable to have a successful relationship, all the cheering in the world will fall on deaf ears. Often, family members — even with the best of intentions — can worsen the situation if they make the depressed person feel bad for not being able to “snap out of it.”
One of the characteristics of depression is a sense of isolation, so your sister probably feels like no one understands her. Or, maybe she is so consumed by her negative thoughts that there is nothing you can say to change her mind. Just like any temporary sickness, sometimes depression has to run its course. So, the best thing you can do now is try to get your sister to see a therapist to help her work it out at her own pace. If she is resistant to go and see someone, online therapy can be a good option. If it seems truly serious and she is rejecting help, you want to make sure she is not thinking of harming herself. Making a contract with her in which she promises to come to you before doing something rash is a way to let her know that you care and are not going to judge her or try to give her advice that she doesn’t want to hear. Either way, at this point it sounds like professional help would be the best avenue, since her issues might run deeper than your average breakup blues.

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