depression: how to spot the signs and offer support

Depression is often used to describe someone having a bad day, or experiencing short-term low mood. But it’s much more than that. Here, we’ll take a look at the emotional, mental, and physical signs of depression so that you know what to look out for.

1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem every year. Even if you're experiencing good mental health, you may know or be supporting someone affected by a mental health condition.

Depression is a common mental health disorder that affects people of all ages. But some of us are more susceptible than others.

Studies show that people who are less well off, have long-term or chronic illnesses, and people who are out of work are more likely to have depression.

So what is depression? Too often, people say they're depressed when they feel fed up, or when things in their lives aren't going as well as they’d like them to. And equally often, after a few days, these feelings disappear.

Medically speaking, depression is when how you feel starts to make your life more difficult. Your low mood, or feelings of emptiness/disconnection, last more than a few weeks, or keep coming back.

the physical signs of depression

While it’s important we don’t self-diagnose ourselves or others, and acknowledge that depression feels different for everyone, common signs include:

  • lack of energy, tiredness, and/or fatigue
  • restlessness and agitation
  • difficulty sleeping (or sleeping more than usual)
  • increase or decrease in appetite, which may lead to weight loss or gain
  • smoking and/or drinking more than usual
  • using drugs
  • reduced sex drive
  • unexplained aches and pains
  • self-harming

emotional signs of depression

There are also many emotional signs of depression, some of which may seem obvious, while others are harder to spot.

The most common emotional signs of depression are:

  • an unshakable feeling of sadness
  • being in low spirits all the time
  • crying a lot, with or without a trigger
  • feeling disconnected or detached to everything around you
  • having no interest in normal activities, especially ones that used to be enjoyable
  • not getting any pleasure out of life
  • anxiousness
  • trouble concentrating or remembering things
  • difficulty making decisions
  • loneliness
  • low self-confidence and self-esteem
  • withdrawing from family and friends
  • irritability and impatience
  • feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and despair
  • feeling guilty for everything, as if everything that goes wrong is their fault
“Everything at home was fine – my family were doing well. But I was preoccupied with work all the time, things just went around and around in my head. I wasn’t getting enough rest, I wasn’t eating very sensibly, I wasn’t getting anything out of music or walking. There were times when I had thoughts of jumping in front of a train.”


caba client

Some people externalise their feelings of depression and become irritable and angry, while others may internalise their feelings and become sad and withdrawn. Some people may do a combination of the two, or alternate between them.

It’s important not to stereotype. Every person’s experience is different. What matters is how much these feelings impact someone’s ability to function, and whether they’re getting worse, becoming painful, or getting difficult to manage.

Depression doesn’t always have an obvious trigger. But it can also develop as a response to difficult circumstances. Stress can trigger depression, and exacerbate and prolong it.

If you recognise some of the above symptoms in yourself, you may feel pretty helpless right now. But there is hope!

Most people recover from bouts of depression. Some people even look back on it as an experience that helped them take stock of their life and make changes.

Start by talking to friends and family, then consider seeing your GP, who can explore further options with you.

“I understand that I was experiencing stress, and perhaps depression, and I was constantly trying to meet unreasonable expectations so am now realising that I can enjoy a good work/life balance by being more realistic and setting my own reasonable goals.”


caba client

how you can support a loved one feeling depressed

If several of the above signs apply to someone you know, they may well have depression.

They may not have spoken to anybody about their concerns, or even realise that’s what they’re experiencing, so try to encourage them to open up and talk about how they feel.

Be careful how you approach the subject. Statements such as, “cheer up” or “pull yourself together” aren’t helpful and can make people defensive.

Instead, focus on listening. You may not feel qualified to offer any advice, and that’s ok. It’s not about finding solutions to everything they’re feeling – it’s about reminding them that they’re not alone and you’re there to support them.

It can be difficult for someone suffering from depression to communicate. So do your best to encourage them to talk and listen without judgment.

Just listening in a non-judgmental way, and allowing them to articulate their feelings, can be invaluable.

what you could say

These phrases might help if you’re not sure what to say:

  • “Do you want to talk about it? I’m here whenever you’re ready."
  • “What can I do to help today?”
  • “You’re not alone, even if I don’t completely understand how you feel.”
  • “You’re important to me.”
  • “That sounds hard. How are you managing?”
  • “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this – I’m here for you.”

what could you do?

With depression, everyday activities can feel like a new mountain to climb.

Don’t wait to be asked – do something practical to make daily life easier, like popping meals in the freezer, doing the washing, or vacuuming the house.

Suggest an activity you’ve enjoyed together in the past, like going for a walk together or watching a film. Be prepared to just be there with them if that’s what they need.

seek support

If you think it's appropriate, encourage them to see their GP, who could offer them medical treatment or recommend a local support group.

Research shows that many people make a good recovery from depression after talking therapy.

And remember, however you’re feeling, you can talk to us.

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We support past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales (ICAEW)1, ACA students2, ICAEW staff members3, and the family and carers of members and students4

  1. No matter where your career takes you, past and present members of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England Wales (ICAEW) are eligible for caba’s services for life, even if you change your career and leave accountancy 
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