A Guide To Getting Help For Yourself When You're Depressed

Many articles that handle the issue of mental illness urge readers to “get help,” but none provide explicit guidance as to how. I’m not a doctor, but I have struggled with — and overcome — depression and anxiety since I was 14. This is what has worked for me.

Telling your parents:

Telling your parents that you struggle with depression, anxiety or any other mental health issue can be one of the most terrifying things you will ever do — even if you have a close relationship. I felt like so much of a failure — weak, embarrassed and guilty — that I could nearly not form the words. It was that humiliating. I was afraid that my parents would think I was exaggerating or would be immensely disappointed that their happy, overachieving daughter was anything less than "perfect."

I recommend finding a low-stress time to have this conversation, preferably after work or school or on a weekend. If you can, do it in person. You might have to do it over the phone, and if you do, make sure your parent isn’t busy multitasking. If you can’t bring yourself to speak out loud, write an email or a letter and send it when your parent will have time to read and process. Prepare yourself (this could end up being a long conversation involving tears). It’s an emotional topic for everyone, not just you. Go in knowing this.

Every parent/child relationship is different, but I recommend saying, in your own words, something similar to this:

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed but I haven’t really been feeling like myself lately. I wanted to tell you because I’m scared and think I need to see someone professional help to work this out before it gets worse. I really hope you can help me work through this.”

Your parents could have a variety of reactions. They may try to immediately solve the problem with practical (and often, misguided) suggestions — do you need to switch schools or jobs? Get a new roommate? They may not understand that this is a disease, not a lifestyle problem, though lifestyle issues may be contributing. They may bombard you with a million questions.

They might even feel guilty, like they failed you, or, worst case scenario, brush you off or tell you to “stop being dramatic.” If the latter happens, you will need to proceed without the immediate support of your parents. But don’t give up; while it may take several conversations and a professional to explain the situation to them, they want to understand.

The goal of this conversation is to get your parent to understand that mental illness is a disease and you need to see a professional as soon as possible. This isn’t something either of you are equipped to handle alone.

Telling your friends, teachers, boss and other people in your life:

Do not feel obligated to tell your friends or extended family what is going on. When I was at my worst, I retreated into myself to focus 100 percent on getting better. I simply did not have the energy to explain my situation to anyone beyond my immediate family.

But, if you have a close relationship with someone beyond your parents, you’ll want to fill them in. Use the same speech as above. Some of your friends may not “get it,” but that’s okay — don’t get upset or angry. I found that the best way to explain my depression was to tell people that it is a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a simple emotion. When you give a scientific explanation, people who don’t understand are more likely to come around.

Others may disagree, but I highly recommend telling your teachers, professors or boss what is going on if you feel that your situation may negatively affect your performance or cause you to be absent for any reason. During my junior year of college, I missed the entire first week of class. One of my journalism professors was not impressed — I’m pretty sure she thought I’d extended my vacation an extra week for fun.

Although I found it extremely embarrassing to explain why I was a week late to a complete stranger, she was incredibly sympathetic and took my situation into account for the rest of the semester, continually checking up on me. Four years later, we are still extremely close.

How to find a mental health care provider:

Finding a therapist, psychologist or psychiatrist is, unfortunately, not always easy — even for a completely healthy person. Tack on anxiety, depression or other issues and it can feel like an insurmountable task. Before you start your search, identify what type of provider you need to see. Know the differences between the types so you can narrow your search.

A therapist is not a doctor, cannot prescribe medicine and cannot diagnose mental conditions. Therapists are trained to help people clarify their feelings, make life decisions and provide support. Therapists often work with psychologists and/or psychiatrists to treat patients. Life coaches, marriage counselors and social workers are examples of therapists.

A psychologist must have a master’s degree and can diagnose mental disorders, do research, and treat patients. Often a psychologist will work with a psychiatrist (who is prescribing medication) to treat a patient.

A psychiatrist is a doctor who completed medical school, can diagnose patients and prescribe medicine. Some psychiatrists meet with patients on a regular basis; others prescribe medicine and work with a psychologist who sees the patient regularly.

I’ve worked with both psychiatrists and psychologists. If your depression or anxiety is severely impacting your quality of life, I recommend making an appointment with a psychiatrist. They can evaluate you from a medical standpoint and recommend a course of action from the get-go.

When I was at my worst, my psychiatrist was also my therapist — that is, she prescribed my medicine, met with me weekly and for a few months, multiple times per week. I liked knowing that the person who was giving me medicine was familiar with everything going on in my life and in my head. Now though, I am doing great and don’t need to see someone every week so my current psychiatrist prescribes my medication and we meet once every two or three months to “check in.” I can also call her if I start feeling “off” or for any other reason.

Once you’ve decided what kind of person to see, you can start looking for names — try Psychology Today’s “Find a Psychiatrist” and “Find a Psychologist or Therapist” web tools. You just submit your zip code and names populate the page.

When you talk to the provider on the phone, explain your problem and ask if you would be a good fit. Mental health providers are not like, say, pediatricians or general practitioners — you aren’t really “in and out.” You will have an extremely personal relationship with the person, so finding the right fit is crucial. For example, a few years ago, I was going through a rough patch and went to see a new psychologist.

I thought we would be a great fit because she was younger and “hip” — I thought she would understand where I was coming from. This turned out to be a mistake because I felt like outside of her office, we could be friends, which made me feel uncomfortable to speak intimately with her. I ended up censoring myself for fear of judgment, which is never a good thing.

Many schools have mental health centers — should you go to them?

If your school has a mental health center, there’s no reason not to check it out. In fact, check it out even if you aren’t experiencing any problems — you never know when you or a friend might need help in an emergency.

Unfortunately, many schools have absolutely pathetic mental health centers. It is criminal, in my opinion, that world-class universities plop a few psychologists into the regular health center, give students a 10-session limit and then hand them a list of random names with whom to “continue treatment.” The wait times can be ridiculous and there is sometimes zero choice when it comes to picking a provider. I felt like a customer at the deli counter when I went to my school’s mental health center — oh, you’re depressed? Have you tried changing roommates? NEXT! Of course, this was just my experience — some schools may have great resources.

Should you take medication?

Whether or not you should take medication is entirely up to you and your psychiatrist.

I am not a doctor, but I will say this: medication saved my life. It has saved millions of lives. If you feel that life is nearly unbearable and your doctor suggests trying something, please consider it. It could improve your life 110% and bring you back to a state of mind that you forgot existed.

Have your doctor explain the medication and how it works and then do what you need to do to get healthy. This could include any combination of medicine, therapy and natural remedies.

The bottom line is this: if you are feeling “off” in any way, don’t ignore it — tackle the problem before it gets worse. Be proactive. Ask your friends or family or teachers to help you, even if you are embarrassed or afraid. If you are forced to go it alone, gather all your strength and make those calls. And if you are ever, ever feeling out of control, like you might hurt yourself, call 911 immediately. Go to the hospital.

Remember: depression is a disease. You are not exaggerating and you are not being dramatic. You are saving your life and things will get better.

Photo credit: Shutterstock