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.
‘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.
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.
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.’
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
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 …
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.
‘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.