Very depressed co-worker with child

A co-worker is very depressed.  She says she doesn't bathe or get dressed, except once a week, unless she has a Zoom meeting, and she neglects her child (but not intentionally).  Previously she went to a psychiatrist but he wanted to hospitalize her so she left.  She doesn't want our boss to find out.  She missed one work assignment this week due to not receiving it (she said in a meeting), but she just didn't do it.  I think I'm not supposed to tell anyone because she doesn't want me to?  Or because you can't compel someone to get help because it won't work?  She says her daughter is not happy, but she is fed and goes to school; she feels like a bad mom.  I think anything I do would make things worse.  I want to tell my direct supervisor but that even feels like it is inappropriate, like a medical issue I wouldn't tell anyone.  If this were me, I would want everyone to butt out, but the degree of her hopelessness is what is worrying me.  Especially if you work in this field, do you have any advice?

Parent Replies

New responses are no longer being accepted.

Does your employer offer any support for things like this? We have an Employee Assistance Program where you submit a request via a 3rd party providers and they will assign you a therapist. I'm wondering if she'd be willing to try medication and see if that helps, if she's able to find someone who will prescribe it. I'd encourage her to find another dr who is a better fit.

I know a few people at my work who took short term disability to resolve some mental heath issues they were experiencing. Could she take leave for a month to sort things out?

It sounds like she needs help, does she have any at home? Is it just her? Or does she have a partner or family who can help care for her kiddo? 

IMO she is telling you because she trusts you. Reporting her at work will do nothing for her. Helping her connect with services that can provide emotional and physical support will benefit her and her child. You can also discuss her potential community supports such as who does she have who may be able to give her some respite care so she can have break from childcare at times or who can she call to do an outside activity with like the park, a walk etc. if you want to be of service there are many ways. Telling your supervisor is not one of those. 

I am so sorry to hear your co-worker is so depressed and that you are in this place of wanting to help but unsure what's best for her. I do not work in this field, but my daughter went through a major depressive episode last year. I wonder if your co-worker confiding in you is a cry for help? Being in a depressive state was described to me as being at the bottom of a deep well and you're observing the world around you from that place. So she may not be able to get help for herself, but perhaps you can? I realize that is a lot to put on you. I think this is what I would do: try to contact some of her family members to see if they can help. Find some local therapists who are taking clients, give her the names and encourage her to seek their support. My daughter went to an intensive outpatient program -- might there be something like that she could do so that she wouldn't have to go into the hospital? Good luck to you and to her quick recovery.

This is a sad and difficult situation. It's good you want to help but are also thinking realistically about helping the child.

I do not work in this field, but since no one else has commented, I respect your desire to help, and I've worked adjacent to the field, here are some ideas for you to consider:

  • You are right: it's hard to compel someone to help themselves, but you can frame things as trying to help the child. By mentioning feeling like a bad mom, your coworker is indicating they want to be a good mother, so they might be open to ideas about things to help the child.
  • How old is the kid? I'm wondering if getting them out of the house and into programs around more people would help open up their world outside of the depressed home. Could the kid get involved in more after school activities or programs to spend time around more people? Maybe offering to help find a suitable program for the kid's interest and not frame it as getting the kid out of the house is realistic?
  • Psychiatrists and hospitalizations for mental health are a mixed bag, so the lack of interest is very understandable. Some people find relief talking to a therapist, who are are trained to listen and help people understand themselves rather than psychiatry that is more focused on medication. Therapists are a mixed bag too, so I suggest people meet at least 5 before choosing one. If you have benefits that can cover therapy, you could try encouraging your coworker to explore that instead of psychiatry. To bring it up with your coworker, I'd suggest validating their bad experience and frame it as doing it for the kid. This is too long, but some ideas: "I'm worried about you. I'm worried that you are suffering with intense depression and that is negatively impacting your child too because it's hard to care for someone when you are suffering. I know you had a bad experience with a psychiatrist, but have you tried taking to a therapist? It can take a few tries to find a therapist who is helpful, but many people find relief from therapy."
  • It's pretty sensitive and risks too much involvement, but sometimes the first step is the hardest and getting mental health care is ridiculously hard considering it's for people who are struggling. Depending on the circumstance, you could help get a list of therapists' contacts together for your coworker to make the appointment. If your workplace doesn't have coverage, sharing resources for people your coworker could talk to could also be great, though it's a little forward. There is the national lifeline helpline they can always call. You don't have to be suicidal to call and your coworker could just call to try out talking to someone. Sometimes there are other regional resources and Alameda and SF counties have helplines too. The helplines often offer text, which can be less intimidating, in addition to phone calls.
  • Exercise is important for helping people feel better and other treatments help some, but I think it's unrealistic that your coworker could hear this from you. They might be able to hear "you deserve to feel better" to inspire them to seek help, but I think your efforts are better spent on trying to help the kid get engaged with people outside of the home so that they don't get sucked into the depression, but I'm sorry I don't have better ideas on how to do that.

Good luck and I hope things improve. Depression is stubborn and painful.