Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

What to Say (and Not to Say) to Someone Who’s Depressed

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One of the worst things about depression is the loneliness and the sense of the world getting on with things without you. If someone tells you they have depression, know that they are showing to you part of the beautiful, messy, unpredictable frailties that come with being human. We all have them. 

We humans are a complex bunch, and even with all the loving intent in the world it can be difficult to know what to say. Here are some places to start.

  1. This isn’t an ending. You can beat this.’

    The hopelessness of depression stands with its arms crossed, blocking the door to anything better. That’s how it feels. You probably won’t be believed the first time you say this, but just keep saying it and believing it enough for both of you. Even if the way out feels blocked, you’ll at least be lighting the path.

  2. I’m here.’

    This will help more than you realise – but back it up with action. Call. Visit. Make contact. The very nature of depression means that the depressed person will be unlikely to reach out to you. Show them you have enough reach in you for both of you. Trust me. It will make an difference.

  3. Narrow your offer of help.

    If you say, ‘let me know what I can do to help’, you’re likely to get a ‘nothing’ – or just nothing – back. Depression makes things seem pointless and overwhelming. Narrowing down your offer gives a starting point. Narrow down the time – ‘I’ll meet you after your session/ therapy/ doctor’s appointment if you want’, or the task – ‘What can I do to help with the kids?’ ‘I’ve made a curry. There’s heaps. Can I bring some over for you. Just throw it in the freezer if you want.’

  4. I know you probably don’t feel like it right now but let’s go for a walk.’

    For mild to moderate depression, exercise has the same effect on the brain as antidepressants. The problem is that with depression comes a lack of energy or enthusiasm for everyday activites so it’s likely that depressed people won’t feel like doing anything. That’s where you come in. Organising a way to exercise together will help on two fronts – through physical activity and social contact.

  5. Depression is a real thing.’

    This is a big one. People who are depressed will likely feel there’s something wrong with them. Let them know you that understand depression is an illness and that it didn’t happen because there’s something wrong with them. They were completely fine until depression happened. Let them know it could just as easily happen to anybody, and that you’re not going anywhere because one day, it could be you.

  6. Explain it to me. I want to understand.’

    Perhaps if you’ve had depression before you’ll be able to understand but even if you have, everybody does depression differently. The more you can understand the better. Even showing that you are interested enough to want to understand is huge. In the same way that you don’t have to have a broken arm to know that it hurts, you don’t have to have had depression to be an incredible support.

  7. There’s nothing you can say to me that will send me away from you.’

    Unfortunately, even with all our advances in what we know about depression being a physical condition, there will still be shame and stigma around depression. Part of this is because of the ill-informed idiots in the community who don’t understand enough about it. Even in the strongest person (because even the strongest person can get depressed), the stigma can leave a mark. Be the one who pushes against it.

  8. Point out when you see a glimpse of their pre-depressed self.

    The very nature of depression renders it difficult to remember life without depression. The person they were without depression is still there. Be the one who can still see them. Remind them of what they were like and point out every time you catch a glimpse. 

     

 And What Not to Say …

 

  1. Snap out of it.’

    Depression is a physical illness, just like the flu. Until they find a way for people to snap out of the flu and other physical illnesses, just don’t go there. 

  2. You just need to be better at dealing with it.’

    First of all, what’s the ‘it’. If by ‘it’ you mean depression, they are dealing with it. As best they can. Every. Single. Day. All you’ll be doing is kickstarting another round of self-doubt, self-criticism and hopelessness.  So just don’t.

  3. You’re being really selfish.’

    If you love someone with depression it will be lonely and awful for you too. What’s hard is that in a relationship the emotional resources generally go straight to the person who is struggling the most so there might not be much left in the kitty for you. What’s important to remember though is that the person with depression will already be giving themselves a hard time. Depression is a physical illness, not a choice. Let them know that you miss them. And don’t stop loving them.

  4. You just need to get out and do something.’

    People with depression lose energy for life. Leaving the house can feel as do-able as plucking a star from the sky and using it to power the stove at breakfast. The sentiment would be right though, even if the delivery was not so helpful. Doing something, particularly something involving social contact or exercise will help to counter the neurochemistry that is causing the depression. Rather than giving well-intended advice, initiate something to do together. 

  5. What do you have to be depressed about?’

    Perhaps it’s true that there are people worse off, but that’s not how it feels to somebody who is depressed. Get them thinking that and their response won’t be,’ Yeah. You’re right. Where’s my head been at then. Let’s just play some happy music and get on with it hey?’ It will be ‘You’re right’. So there must be something wrong with me.’ As anyone who has ever struggled emotionally with anything will know (that’s all of us by the way), someone else having problems doesn’t vanish yours.

  1. Just have a drink and loosen up.’

    Alcohol itself is a depressant, so be careful encouraging a depressed person to have a drink.

If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, know that it’s treatable. Like the flu, it’s a physical condition and there are so many options for treatment now, with more opening up all the time. The most important thing is to keep talking – to your family, your friends, your GP. It’s your most powerful weapon in the you-v-depression fight.

If you know someone with depression what it all comes back to is this: love, compassion and empathy are superpowers. Know that and use them. You’ll never know the difference you’ll be making.

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9 Comments

marge wisniewski

This was timely for me today. I have a 34 year old son that lives in another state. He is an alchoholic in treatment and going through divorce. His wife of one year didn’t know how to live with him…he is also clinically depressive. How do I help from here?

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Hey Sigmund

It’s so hard watching someone you love go through this. If he’s going through treatment, he’ll be in good hands. If you can be a supporting, loving presence for him, without being judgemental or critical, you can’t do much more than that. I know how frustrating it is not to be able to do any more than that, but it’s his journey now, and if he’s in treatment, he’ll be working hard. Your son is lucky to have you.

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Marge Wisniewski

Thank you for saying that. At this point, my daughter and I are flying out this morning to be with him. Yesterday was bad. He had to turn in his divorce papers and he was devastated. I don’t know how he will react when we get there. He is still drinking and he knows that we want him to quit. He was in the hospital last spring with pancreatitis and the doc said he would die soon if he didn’t quit.
Please pray for us as we minister to him.

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Marge Wisniewski

I forgot to mention that I am in the midst of a depression…for 9 years, so, yeah, I can feel his pain. Should help with the empathy!!!

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Jazz

I told my grandmother that soon I’ll be dead, that I’m suicidal. She old me that it’s a sin and that I need to get over my problems because life isn’t so bad. She then told my mother and my mother said ‘what does she have to be depressed about she has a roof over her head’ as if the roof is the cause of my depression. I absolutely hate every inch of me and the will to live is zero to none! I attempted suicide when I was 13 and my mother and father knew but my father just mocked me and shoved a razor in my face and told me to kill myself then. I also ended up in the psych ward for another suicide attempt and was diagnosed with major depression. My mother just shrugged it off and when I asked if I could see a psychiatrist she snapped at me. I’m 21 and have lost any hope that I ever had. I don’t know what else to do, I’m still so dependent on my mother as far as shelter, food and transportation, which makes me feel even more worthless for my age, but that means I have no way of getting professional help unless I include my mother and she thinks (along with the rest of my family) that professionals are a waste of time and money. I don’t know what else to do. I want to die so badly, one of these days I’m just going jump in front of a car driving fast on the street on my way to work, in hopes that I die and that I don’t harm whoever was driving, or just take a bunch of sleeping pills and pain pills with alcohol, that’s actually better because it doesn’t involve anyone but me. Ugh I’m so messed up, why am I alive!

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Hey Sigmund

Oh Jazz there are many people who don’t understand depression but there are so many more who do. It can be really frightening when someone you love says they don’t want to live anymore – I have had people say that to me. It’s really scary when that happens and some people react really badly. This doesn’t mean you aren’t loved. It means some people aren’t very good at knowing what to do.

I understand your feelings of hopelessness and sadness. I really do. Please go to this link and get in touch with someone on one of the suicide lines listed here http://www.heysigmund.com/about/if-you-need-more-support/. They will be able to give you the support that you need. You don’t have to do this alone. You are too important to feel like this and to go through this feeling alone. Otherwise, go to this site http://www.befrienders.org. If you enter your country, it will tell you where you can go to find support. I want you to know how much you matter. I love that you have written in and I love that you took the time to comment here. Your voice is so important and there will be people who read your words and feel less alone. You make a difference. I promise you that. Please keep fighting. There is a future version of you who is desperate for you not to give up. This is one point in time and I know things feel awful now but they won’t always. I also need you to know that suicide never destroys one life. There are people who love you – your father, your mother, your grandmother who will never get over losing you. One of the reasons they react the way they do is because they don’t know how else to react. That’s kind of understandable when you think about it. The thought of someone you love wanting to not be here any more is unbearable – it’s easier to pretend it’s not true. If something happened to you it would change their lives, and the lives of anyone else who loves you forever. It is difficult to see that now, I understand that, but it’s true. Please go to the site I have linked to in this comment. Things can get better for you, and you don’t have to do this alone.You have a purpose for being here. You might not know what that is yet, but there is one. You are important and you matter.

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Sasha Cohen

This is a great blog post. I have been struggling with personal issues for 10 years and have found reaching out online to seek the advice of others has helped me through the good and bad time. I have always had relationship issues and have started to follow the advice of Dr. Robi Ludwig. I saw her on a tv show once and I really appreciated her take on current psychological issues. She has written two books but my favorite book is “Your Best Age is Now” I have read it and loved it! I highly recommend it to anyone out there struggling.

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