It is likely that someone in your family struggles with depression. Almost two thirds of people who commit suicide suffer from depression; 30 percent of those who suffer attempt suicide and half of those ultimately die from suicide.
You can help.
In his book, Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman provides insight into the thought processes of those suffering from depression and provides coaching to help them, and others, be more optimistic. As a complement to medication, cognitive therapy can significantly improve one's condition. The following summarizes some of the key messages from his book.
Suffering: Those who suffer from depression tend to explain negative experiences in personal, pervasive and permanent terms. In other words, if someone cancels a lunch date with someone suffering from depression, regardless of the reason, the person will think the lunch was canceled because, "I am flawed; it impacts every aspect of my life and there is nothing I can do to change that." She may also think badly of the person who canceled, but ultimately, she'll blame herself, conclude that her flaws (whatever she perceives them to be) ruin everything and cannot be overcome.
You can help family members who suffer from depression to see the absurdity of their logic. You can quickly demonstrate an alternative view of the same situation by explaining, "Your friend canceled lunch because something critical came up; surely she'll go with you another time." With this simple, truthful observation you help to make the problem external rather than personal and temporary rather than permanent. By implication, of course, there is nothing pervasive about one friend canceling a lunch date.
You can't always be there for your sister (or brother, but let's say "sister" as women suffer from depression more frequently than men) so over time you want to help your sister learn to have this discussion with herself, to dispute her own depressive thoughts. This simply requires practice. Follow these steps:
a real situation that your sister may have experienced recently that bothered her.
Explain that you will take the view that she may be taking in her head, and you will explain the situation in personal, pervasive and permanent terms. Then, it's her turn to articulate the defense in external, limited, and temporary terms. It will be easier for her to respond to the criticism you speak out loud than it is for her to react the same way to the same message in her head.
the practice as you've explained it to her.
There is another tool you can use to help your sister. You can simply distract her. People who suffer from depression often fall into the trap of ruminating on their problems. Suggest your sister do something else with you; don't talk about her problems and don't let her think about them. Encourage her to make some time in the future - in a day or two - to spend an hour thinking about the problem. Chances are, by the time the scheduled hour comes, she won't feel the need to think about it anymore.
By using these two techniques, you can help your sister feel better about herself. To gain a deeper understanding of these skills, read "Learned Optimism." Not only will you learn to help your sister, you can learn to be more optimistic, yourself.
Please note that depression is serious; while family members can offer support, the best help you can give a family member suffering from depression is to get them professional help.