“The least helpful thing people have said to me is, ‘You have depression? But you’re always smiling. I would never have guessed.’ And then they go back to whatever they were doing, as if you hadn’t just opened up your soul to them.”
– From a valued friend.
Don’t be fooled by appearances. A depressed person needs company, needs to talk, and needs support.
What a depressed person does not need is insensitive words and acts. Very likely those go to the heart of what caused the depression and will trigger a bad response.
Talking to someone about their depression can be tricky. No question. You feel like you’re walking on eggshells. Even those of us with depression understand how unpredictable our condition can seem.
Seem is the operative word. There are actually some predictable patterns, at least in the negative comments department. While there are no magic positive words that will snap someone out of chronic despondency, there are definitely some that will worsen it instantly.
If nothing else, when you talk to a family member, a friend, or a colleague about their depression, remember you are not inside the person’s head. You don’t live with it. Therefore, listen and learn before you jump in with your take on it.
“Sometimes it’s not what people say so much as how they treat a depressed person. Other times, it’s what they say.”
– From a valued friend.
Crappiest un-empathetic things to say
If you say these things to a person with depression – or behind their back – perhaps you shouldn’t speak at all. I recommend you learn what depression feels like and make listening your default action. For all you know, your insensitive words could drive the person closer to self-harm.
- “Again?… Still?”
- “Who cares?”
- “Shut up.”
- “Go away.”
- “I’m sick of this.”
- “I don’t want to hear this.”
- “You’re wrong.”
- “Get a grip. Snap out of it.”
- “Just cheer up and be happy.”
- “You’re useless.”
- “But you don’t look depressed.”
- “You’re making me depressed.”
- “You need a girlfriend/a boyfriend/a vacation/to get laid.”
- “Nobody helped me when I had problems. Help yourself.”
- “It’s always ‘me, me, me’.”
- “Can’t you just take a pill or something?”
- “Depression isn’t real.”
- “You’re such a drama queen.”
- “Are you sure it isn’t just PMS?”
- “Those pills aren’t helping.”
- “Have a stiff drink or eat some chocolate. That will help.”
And whatever you do, don’t take advantage of their state of mind by having sex with them for the first time. Don’t even think it’s a way to be helpful. (If you’re already a couple, sex is a judgment call.)
Words you think will help, but likely won’t
Take care with the words listed below. If you know the depressed person very well and have talked about this stuff before, maybe you can say some of these, but still be careful.
The golden rule is… when in doubt, don’t.
- “I understand.” (Do you? Really? That’s a big call.)
- “This, too, shall pass.”
- “Things could be worse… Look on the bright side… You don’t have a terminal illness… There are kids starving in the world… There are others much worse off than you… Some real tragedy will give you perspective.” (You’ll probably never hear a psychologist or other mental health professional say these things. So, why would you say them? Maybe you think they work for you, but they’re just cynical ways not to face problems.)
- “What do you have to be depressed about? Things aren’t so bad. Your problems aren’t that bad.” (What matters is how the person feels, not your judgment.)
- “It’s all in your mind.” (Duh, Sherlock.)
- Shitty platitudes: “Pick yourself up, dust yourself off… Nobody said life was fair…Stop feeling sorry for yourself…”
- Listing your problems, either as a comparison or because you don’t want to listen and just want to talk about you.
- “Happiness is a choice.” (True. But that doesn’t help in the middle of a depressive episode.)
- “Do you go to church? Do you read the Bible?” (Depression involves so much circular thinking. The person doesn’t need more circular thinking from organized religion.)
- “I’ll pray for you.” (Maybe a fellow believer will appreciate it, but others won’t. It’s not about making you feel better.)
- “You can do anything you want. Just apply yourself.” (Deep down a depressed person knows this, but needs to be shown how. By professionals.)
- “Take a vacation.”
- “I haven’t been well, also.”
- “I’m annoyed at you that you’re always away/late/cancelling appointments.”
Simple things that can make a world of positive difference
My blog about good things to say and do covers more about this, but here are a few ideas to get you started.
- The person needs friendship, not judgment or investigation.
- A simple message like: “Would you like to catch up for coffee, or catch a movie?”
- “I love you and believe in you.”
- “I have a hug ready for you. Always.”
- Don’t ask, “How are you?” Ask, “What are you up to?” and then be interested and supportive.
- Invite the person to things. Don’t give up if the answer is no. Try again later.
- Just catching up and providing support are the two biggest things that are needed.
A few good tips for how to approach a depressed person
- The child approach. As ridiculous or corny as this may seem, apply the same approach as you would with a child who is upset. I don’t mean be condescending. Instead, show love, empathy, compassion, etc. Teach what love is, because the person may have forgotten.
- Just be there. Sometimes you don’t have to say much. Or even anything. Just be there, listen, and support. Offer hugs, coffee, a snack, a walk, anything.
- Don’t abandon. Staying away from the depressed person can be devastating, even if they say they want to be alone. Maybe you stay away because you don’t know what to say or do. That’s understandable. But isolation is a major part of depression. When people lose friendships, relationships and jobs, depression worsens.
- Listen. Listen. Listen. Don’t jump in with solutions. Help them get it off their chest, at least for now.
- No ultimatums. Tough love in the form of an ultimatum does not work. “Fix this or get out…” or “If this happens again, I’m leaving…” are guaranteed to fail.
My next blog lists more helpful things to say to a depressed person. Please use them and be supportive, empathetic, and patient. Your slightest act of support could make a huge difference.
Many people with depression have thoughts about suicide or other self-harm – even if you have been an amazing source of support. Know the warning signs of suicide and what to do.