When my dad’s not well: Tips for helping a loved one living with depression

Seeing someone you love going through a spell of poor mental health is tough. Grace Campbell asks, is there anything you can do to help them?

Grace's dad, journalist Alastair Campbell, was press secretary and director of communications for prime minister Tony Blair. He's spoken openly about his own mental health difficulties and is an ambassador for several mental health charities.

Growing up with a parent with mental health issues can sometimes be quite confusing.

As a child, when my dad would go through bouts of depression, I would find it hard to understand why he was sad, and why I couldn’t make it better. My dad’s a big character, and so often the mood of our house would be changed when his depression was there.

When I was a child, I think my dad found it difficult to explain how he was feeling to me. At that point, I didn’t have much understanding of what mental health was. I understood physical pain. If my dad had had a cut, or a bruise, or an upset tummy, I’d have been able to understand what was going on. But I couldn’t understand why he was so sad, when he had all of us around.

Because the symptoms of poor mental health are harder to describe than physical ones, it is often hard to talk about mental health with people who haven’t experienced the same thing.

I remember once, when I was about 12, my dad was so low he couldn’t get out of bed. Nothing could cheer him up, not even me. It was hard not to take this personally. I could see it pained him. He knew that he was making me upset, because I wanted so desperately to help him.

Here are some tips, for you, if you’re living with someone with depression.

1. Don't take it personally

If an adult in your life is going through a difficult time, it may sometimes feel like it’s your fault. It isn’t. This is key to remember. Mental illnesses are so common, and they’re caused by a combination of things, but you are not one of them.

2. Focus on what you can do

Sometimes I would feel useless with my dad. I wanted him to come back to normal and I hated the fact that I couldn’t help. But when I eventually learnt that this wasn’t about me, it wasn’t my fault; it was something out of my control, I realised the only thing I needed to do was to support him by being there and showing him love.

3. Make them laugh...

The poet Lord Byron said "laughter is cheap medicine", and I think this is true. I’m a stand-up comedian now, and I definitely got a lot of my humour from my dad, whose one of the funniest people I know. Whenever my dad’s depression is bad, I try my hardest to make him laugh. Humour can be a great way to lift people’s spirits and distract them from their anxieties. It’s not the cure, but it certainly can help.

4. ...or let them cry

I have a very vivid memory of once going to the cinema with my dad when he was depressed. We saw a cheesy comedy and ate pick 'n' mix, and I think we both cried (although he’ll definitely deny it), but I remember his spirits being lifted afterwards.

Different things will be helpful for different people; if humour isn’t the best way to lift someone’s spirits, perhaps something else will work. Make them some food, or put on their favourite music. These are all simple ways of showing them you’re there.

5. Try to get out of the house

When your mental health is bad, doing menial things like going to the shops, or for a walk, can feel like climbing Kilimanjaro. If your loved one is feeling that way, try and motivate them to get out of the house. A bit of fresh air and a change of scene can work wonders.

Alistair Campbell: Depression and Me aired on Tues 21st May 2019 at 9pm on BBC 2. You can watch it on BBC iPlayer.

A family photo of the Campbells.
Grace Campbell and her family.
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