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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Our children and teens can feel anxious, and do brave - but they don’t need to do it all at once. They can happen in tiny brave steps, one after the other. 

Start by encouraging them to notice the difference. Some things that feel scary will be best avoided - dark alleys, snakes, walking alone at night. Sometimes though, those things that feel scary will be growthful and important - exams, school, trying something new, approaching a challenge, taking a safe risk, separating from you when there is another loving adult who will take care of them. These things are scary, but safe. For sure, they might come with failure, or humiliation, or they might not work out as planned, but they are safe. 

Part of living bravely is having the confidence that even if my ‘what if’ happens, I’ll be okay. I can take safe risks, because whatever happens, I’ll be okay. I can do hard things, because whatever happens I’ll be okay. And we know they will be. Actually they’ll be better than okay because most times, enough times, they’ll shine.♥️
When children are in big feelings - big anxiety, big anger, big sadness - it will be really difficult for them to bring themselves back to calm without us. This is because the part of the brain that can calm big feelings isn’t quite built yet. Until it is, they’ll be looking to us for a hand. Even as adults with fully developed brains, we sometimes need the loving presence of our special person or people to help us through those big times. 

When children are in big feelings it’s less about what you do and more about who you are. They are looking for an anchor - a strong, steady presence to help bring their their world back to steady. When you calm your breathing, it will calm your nervous and let you guide theirs back to calm. 

This is NOT rewarding big behaviour. In fact, it’s doing the opposite. The brain learns from experience, so the more we guide them back to calm, the more they develop the capacity to do it on their own.♥️
Brains love keeping us alive. They adore it actually. Their most important job is to keep us safe. This is above behaviour, relationships, and learning - except as these relate to safety. 

Safety isn’t about what is actually safe, but about what the brain perceives. Unless a brain feels safe and loved (connected through relationship, welcome in the space), it won’t be as able to learn, plan, regulate, make deliberate decisions, think through consequences.

Young brains (all brains actually) feel safest when they feel connected to, and cared about by, their important adults.  This means that for us to have any influence on our kids and teens, we first need to make sure they feel safe and connected to us. 

This goes for any adult who wants to lead, guide or teach a young person - parents, teachers, grandparents, coaches. Children or teens can only learn from us if they feel connected to us. They’re no different to us. If we feel as though someone is angry or indifferent with us we’re more focused on that, and what needs to happen to avoid humiliation or judgement, or how to feel loved and connected again, than anything else. 

We won’t have influence if we don’t have connection. Connection let’s us do our job - whether that’s the job of parenting, teaching - anything. It helps the brain feel safe, so it will then be free to learn.♥️
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#parenting #parentingforward #parentingtips #mindfulparenting #neurosequentialmodel
Children are born whole and with the will to do good, but none of us are born knowing what to do or how to do when things feel big. That comes with time, lots of practice, and the loving leadership of adults who have been there before.

It can be tempting to hurry their development, or measure our own parenting by how well our children behave but development  just doesn’t work this way. Like all good things, it takes time to be able to manage big feelings or unmet needs enough so they don’t inflame big behaviour. Even as adults we won’t always act in adorable ways. (Oh don’t I know it!)

Learning how to manage big feelings without sliding into big behaviour is like anything hard we or our children learn - how to play tennis, play the guitar, read, cross the road. None of these are learned through punishment or harsh consequences. They’re learned with practice and the steady guidance of adults who ‘do with’ and take the time to show us how. The time it takes and the bumps along the way are no reflection on the adults doing the teaching, or the children doing the learning, but a reflection on the magnitude of the challenge. It’s big!

The more we take it personally when our children don’t behave as we (or the world) would like, the more likely we’ll move into shame and judgement (of them and ourselves). Ultimately this will impact our capacity to actually give them what they need, which is patience, trust in our leadership our capacity to guide them, and our strong loving presence.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting
When we punish, or do anything that drives emotional separation (shame) or physical separation from us, it teaches our children to avoid us, or please us. It teaches them that failure, falling short, or making a mistake is shameful. It doesn’t teach them anything about what to do instead, or how to learn, or how to deal with things not going to plan.

Rather than, ‘What punishment do they need to do better?’ try, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ What they need - what we all need - is someone who is calm, strong, loving, and who can handle them enough to stay when them and guide them through the tough stuff. When we focus on the relationship, it opens the way for us to guide behaviour.♥

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