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

What to Say (And Not to Say) to Someone Who Is Depressed

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 you part of the beautiful, messy, unpredictable frailties that come with being human. We all have them. It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is depressed, but know that it’s unlikely you can make anything worse.

What to Say to Someone Who is Depressed.

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. It will make a 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 activities 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. Depression doesn’t let people answer that question with, ’ Yeah. You’re right. Where’s my head been at then? Let’s just play some happy music and get on with it hey?’ The response is more likely to 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.

  6. ‘Just have a drink and loosen up.’

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

And finally …

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.

50 Comments

Diane

Hi Todd,
I hear you and I understand. I’m in a similar boat. I don’t know what to tell you to help, but I think you are really trying to help yourself. I think that’s brave.
Take care.

Reply
Todd

I don’t know why but reading the article kinda helped, but it’s hard to find something that helps, I’m not sure why I google how to help my depression or make it easier, maybe I’m looking for something to give me a reason to get motivated. Most of them time I wake up feeling like I don’t wanna get outta bed and have no motivation to do anything I just sit and watch TV and play games while my wife works her butt off and it makes me feel even worse but when I tell myself to do something I just get this feeling of uneasy or lack of will to do it, I hate putting it all on my wife we have 3 kids which she pretty much does it all and doesn’t complain about anything just wish I could be better for her and the kids, I want help, but the anxiety keeps me from wanting to take medication or go to the doctor for help just feels like I’m lost!! thanks for reading

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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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