The Right Questions

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For some time now I’ve been planning a post centred around supporting loved ones with Post Natal Depression. If you’re a regular reader you’ll know that PND has played a big part in the lives of my family, close friends and me for the past two years. It’s something I’ve only spoken publicly about in the past few months and I find it easier to write than to speak about.

I now know what I need when I am at a low ebb. In my case it is usually help with the children and the opportunity for quiet reflection. To lick my wounds in private and to build up the strength to face the world again. Also anti-depressants and therapy featured heavily in my treatment, but for the purposes of this post I’m looking at what friends and family can do to help.

In researching this article I asked some of my readers and friends to share their experiences of depression with me and to tell me what they felt they needed in terms of support at their worst. What really struck me was how similar yet entirely different their replies are.

“I never really asked for practical help. If anyone had offered I would have put a front on that everything was fine and I was fine, even though I was beyond desperate.”

“I used to want to do everything as no one else did it the same as me or not to my high standards.”

“I would have loved someone to help with kids stuff like dinner times and even nursery runs as I really didn’t want to see or speak to other mums.”

“I felt better if someone took the kids and I got the cleaning done. It made me feel as if I had achieved something.”

“I’d have loved for people to have stopped by and offered to run the hoover around, or dropped a casserole off, but I couldn’t ask for those things for fear that people would think I wasn’t coping.”

“When people phoned I’d have liked them to ask after me and not just my new baby. I might not have been able to say anything, but it would have been nice to be asked.”

“What I wanted more than anything was company. Not to be alone with the babies. I didn’t actually want people to take them off my hands – but to come round and help me look after them, and help me to feel normal.”

“I just wanted to be left alone. I felt like there was never a moment for myself but I felt I couldn’t ask for help as I couldn’t bear the thought of people thinking (or knowing) that I wasn’t coping.”

“The worst thing for me was the feelings of isolation. I always needed to be around people whether it was friends, family or even strangers at a toddler group. I hated being at home alone.

I could fill pages and pages with quotes like these. Some women desperately need company and conversely others just want time alone. Some are silently crying out for help in the home and others can’t bear the thought of letting anyone else near the hoover. Some abhor the idea of unsolicited advice whilst others just want someone to take over and make everything okay.

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I have read and re-read this messages over and over, trying to digest them and to think of a way to coherently sum them up in to a neat article to solve everything. I hoped to narrow the stories down in to four easy-to-follow bullet points. These were my first three:
1) Listen with compassion and without judgement
2) Encourage professional help
3) Offer practical help.

I then got to point number four. Ask the right questions.

This, in my view, is absolutely the most crucial, key factor in supporting someone with depression. Without asking the right questions, nothing else matters. My previous three points are, well, pointless really.
Nothing else will work. You could run the risk of scaring the sufferer away or interfering, despite meaning well. If we don’t ask the right questions, we can’t possibly offer the right support.

In my previous life, before children, I spent thirteen years working in advertising. One of the first pieces of advice I was given was to ask open questions. They invite the other person to open up more and keep the conversation flowing.

Rather than this type of dead-end conversation….
You: Are you okay?
Them: “Yes thanks.”

It could be an idea to try something like this…
You: “So, is having a newborn what you thought it would be?”
or ” What is your favourite or least favourite thing so far about being a mummy? What has surprised you?” or “Is your partner enjoying being a new parent? What could they do differently to help more?”

You can see that questions like this encourage open dialogue. They offer the sufferer an opportunity to open up, if she is ready to.

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PND is so closely tied to a woman’s sense of worth as a mother.
Even the most well-meaning of comments can be twisted around in her mind to mean something else altogether. Mentioning that she is coping well, for example, can reinforce the fact that no-one understands what she is really going through. Offering to clean the house will probably leave her believing that you think her house is filthy and that she is a terrible mother. Offering to help with the children and bath time will cause horrible guilt and she will probably feel like a burden. Or, at least, this is how I felt in those situations. And the messages I’ve received show me I’m not alone in this.

This is why it is so, so hard to support someone who suffers with PND.

It is human nature to want to save people who are suffering with illness. We want to rush in and rescue, to take the pain away and to make it all better.
It is my style to offer practical advice or solutions to people in need. I’ll often turn up with a lasagne or offer to take kids to school or to clean the kitchen. It makes me feel like a better person to try to help others. In fact, I was told (rather bluntly, as it happens) by my therapist that this is, in fact a symptom of my own need to ask for help, but that’s another story.

My point being: sometimes these actions make us feel better, but not the intended recipient of our good deeds.

She might just want to sit in silence. She may want company. She may relish the idea of losing herself in the housework or baking whilst someone else watches the kids. Perhaps she wants to talk. But unless you ask the right questions, it’s simply impossible to tell.

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As the partner or close friend of someone with depression you will in all likelihood feel a combination of helplessness, anger, guilt, frustration and sadness. But it’s important to remember that depression is not personal. The fact that your loved one is not responding to your attempts to help them is no reflection on you. If you think about it, if G-d forbid you were supporting someone through cancer, you wouldn’t expect to be able to cure them by yourself. Depression is a shared responsibility, but not your sole responsibility. Professional help is out there and as the partner of someone with depression, it’s so important to seek out and to take the support that is available.

An old friend of mine, C, has supported his wife through post-natal and clinical depression for sixteen years. He gave me this advice:
” A depressed person ALWAYS sees one MASSIVE problem, but in reality problems are compound and are generally lots of little problems that if fixed (or managed) in turn, make the (not) massive problem simply crumble away.”

Please don’t ever imply that a depressed person can “pull themself together“. In my experience there is no statement more isolating or that further demonstrates a lack of understanding of what is going on. Depression is caused by a number of factors, with the main culprit being a chemical imbalance in the brain. There is nothing a depressed person would love more than the ability to “get a grip”. It’s just not that simple.

More than anything, my research has shown me that depressed people want to be listened to. Really, properly, listened to when they are ready to talk. Not with a view to offering solutions, not thinking about what to say next, just listening. My friend Sarah once sat with me whilst I sobbed. I spoke my darkest thoughts out loud and she just listened. She didn’t offer advice or try to fix me and I’ll be forever grateful for that. Sometimes shining light on darkness goes a long way towards chasing the shadows away.

I’m going to leave you with a passage from an incredible blog post by Andrew Lawes. You can find it in its entirety here, and follow him on Twitter @laweslaweslawes.

Try to imagine that depression is like being in a dark tunnel. The person with depression can’t see a thing, because everything is surrounded by darkness. Every sound is amplified, every fear is magnified. All they want to do is get out of the tunnel, but they can’t see where to go, they don’t know what to do. Your natural reaction is to lead them out of this dark tunnel, back to the light.

This is the WRONG approach.

You may think it makes sense, but for the person with depression, nothing makes sense. That’s the nature of the illness. They can’t be led out of the tunnel, because the fear is too great, the darkness is too dark. Trying to drag them out of this tunnel is more likely to make them curl up and hide than do any good.

What you need to do is be there for them. If they talk, just listen. Don’t talk, don’t give them opinions. Just really listen. Sit with them, let them talk. However upsetting or shocking what they say is, don’t give advice, just listen. When they finish, hug them, tell them you love them, and that however long it takes, you will be there until they find the strength to get better. You will never be able to lead someone out of the dark tunnel, all you can do is stay in the tunnel with them until they feel strong enough to lead themselves out.”


I’d just like to say a huge thank you to the women who shared their stories to make this post possible. I am so grateful for your bravery in sharing your darkest thoughts with a complete stranger.

I’d also like to clarify that I am not a medical professional. I have a list of support organisations here, if you’d like to talk to someone. Please do use it if you need to.

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17 thoughts on “The Right Questions

  1. Another sensitive and compassionate article which reflects your considerable emotional intelligence. Your kids are lucky that you are their mummy. xx

  2. What a great post Rachel xx I found myself nodding through pretty much all of it. You have a wonderful ability of putting the information across in an easy to understand way. And the end passage brought tears to my eyes, because it’s just like that. You have to find your own way out of the dark tunnel in your own time and all you can ask of others is that they stay with you, listen, don’t judge and show you unconditional love. For some this is too much to ask, however for a select few it is possible and for those of us who have suffered or are suffering with this horrible illness, they are our heros, our knights in shining armour. Sending you a big hug xx

    • Charlie that passage made me cry too. If you’d told me three years ago that I’d be blogging about depression I’d have assumed you’d mistaken me for someone else! Life has a way of throwing things at us doesn’t it? It means so much to me that my posts seem to be helping people. Thanks you so much for your support x

  3. Beautifully written, thank you. Being listened to is definitely the thing. My husband struggles with a need to fix everything and it’s taken him a long time to learn there is no right answer when I’m in the tunnel. Just time and love.

  4. What an awesome post. As I was reading it, I was thinking that it sounds so similar to the grieving process which is not really that surprising since it’s a form a depression. I love the idea of just listening but find it’s hard because we all want to HELP so it’s a good reminder. I also think that asking the right questions is key. Questions with yes/no answer are useless. I’ve also thought that making concrete suggestions like “Can I take you out for coffee?” rather than “what can I do to help?” is better. Simpler suggestions are always better. Thanks for a great post!

  5. Wow. If a post ever hit the nail on the head about PND this is it!! I cannot even explain how much I would love someone to just listen, and what you said about the words “get a grip” is so so true. I can honestly say that I’m feeling like I’m almost out of my tunnel, but thank you for raising awareness to quite a taboo subject xx

  6. I am a professional who offers support to new mothers and I am constantly learning. Your blog leaves a lot of food for thought and I just wanted to thank you for reminding me of the most important part of being a care giver.

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