Oftentimes, people are well meaning with their comments. Their intentions are pure. But this doesn’t mean we don’t all need a little guidance once in a while on how to talk to friends and family who are depressed, especially if you are not one who suffers from it. It can be hard to know what to say.
From a person who suffers from clinically diagnosed depression, anxiety, OCD and mild bi-polar II disorder, these are tips from my personal experiences.
What NOT to say:
- Don’t Minimize. – “Hey, it’s not so bad” or “Other people have it worse”. Or the ultimate “What do you have to be depressed about?” Nothing can send me spiraling faster to the bottom of the pit of depression than these statements. I’ve already beaten myself up enough over them without having someone else throw them out there. I know that oftentimes, people don’t know what to say and they think these words will be encouraging. The downfall is this: Society has stigmatized depression, and it has used that term very loosely. To the true clinically depressed person, it’s so much more than being “sad” about something. Of course other people have it worse, I know this. I know my life seems perfect, trust me, I live in it. I’m not simply sad or blue.
- “Everyone’s depressed.” No, everyone gets depressed sometimes. It’s normal to feel the repercussion of a bad day — like when your boss yells at you or your cat pooped in the shower. Those problems are real and are definite cause for a bad mood. But diagnosed depression is like any other physical illness that requires medication. You wouldn’t say “Everyone has a thyroid problem.” Because, well, they don’t.
- “You don’t need to be on medication — it’s so overprescribed. Everyone’s on drugs these days.” Yeah, because the medical health world is realizing that mental illnesses are just as serious as other physical ones. There are thousands of people who have been pulled out of deep emotional and mental holes with the help of medication prescribed by good psychiatrists. You probably know some of them — you just don’t know you do. Medication has saved my life. Literally. As in, I wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for the meal of pills I consume every morning and evening. So yes, I do indeed NEED this medication. I may have lived years without it, but only by the grace of God and medical intervention that kept me alive after overdoses and suicide attempts.
- “Happiness is a choice.” This implies that my depression is also a choice. News Flash: There’s no way in HELL I’d CHOOSE to live like this. What you don’t see is that I AM happy. I love my life, my kids and my house. But that doesn’t stop me from having a mental illness that leaves me debilitated and in bed for days on end. A new car in the driveway and being happy that my son hit a homerun doesn’t stop the obsessive-compulsive behaviors that I have no control over. It’s not like I choose or am enjoying my negative feelings. Nobody’s choosing to feel this way. If anything, it’s quite the opposite. I’m TRYING to get better- that’s why I’ve spent over 100 days and hundreds of thousands of dollars on residential treatment and hospitalizations, therapists and psychiatrists. I’m choosing to try and get better.
- “All you need to do is exercise more.” Any decent shrink will tell you that exercise helps, since it triggers feel-good endorphins that help with depression. But full-on depression (and other mental illnesses) isn’t cured by exercise alone, and it’s not like depression is caused by a lack of physical activity. My depression and complete laziness are separate. Everyone needs more exercise, and it can certainly help a lot of people with temporary bouts of sadness. If a problem is much more chemical than it is psychosomatic, it is only going to feel insulting and condescending to be told all they need is to get on the treadmill more often.
- “You’re just being dramatic.” I found myself recently thinking: “why am I crying in front of FedEx Kinkos?” That, my friends, is not dramatic. That is me fighting the demons in my head that are attacking me for no reason. I’m not looking for drama while standing alone, mid-day in the parking lot of a print shop; I’m suffering from an illness that has disrupted my daily living.
- “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Obviously this is someone who cares and means well — but as far as depression goes, what doesn’t kill you really sucks, tells you to shower way less than you should, robs you of life and relationships. And it hasn’t killed me- yet- but there are days that I feel like it’s making me anything but stronger. Honestly, this phrase just sucks. Don’t use it.
- “I know how you feel.” Empathetic advice can be a hit or miss depending on how it’s used. If you can relate to a person going through a difficult time because you have personally been there in an emotional or physical sense, then saying something to the effect of, “I never thought I would make it through, but I did, and you will too,” are acceptable words of solace. On the other hand, comparing your friend’s mental illness and fight for life to the pain you experienced when your dog died, may cost you a friendship. You may very well have been traumatized by your situation, but it is not the same. If you haven’t truly been there, then please don’t try to console me by telling me you have. See #1.
- “You go to church, you shouldn’t feel this way.” At church, the lady who sat in front of me had cancer. A gentleman across the sanctuary has diabetes. Would you dare tell them that since they go to church or believe in God that they shouldn’t be sick? No. And if you would… well, that’s another issues all by itself. Depression is a disease like any other. Just because I believe in God doesn’t mean I’m magically happy.
So what DO you say?
- You don’t have to say anything– Just be there.
- If you need to say something: a simple: “I’m sorry you’re feeling this way” or “I wish I could take your pain away” are all we need.
- Acknowledge that Depression is an illness. Validation is key to helping not only to end the stigma but also give the person you love a sense of hope that someone understands.
- Offer to help: a) practically (cleaning house, cooking a meal, doing laundry, etc.) b) if the situation warrants, offer to help find them professional help.
- Don’t be afraid to ask if they are suicidal.
- Love unconditionally.
- Assure them you aren’t going anywhere. And then don’t.
- Hug them.