What Not To Say To Someone With Depression

1 in 5 American adults suffers from mental health issues. That's over 40 million people, more than the population of New York and Florida combined. Globally, depression affects 400 million.

Considering depression is so common in this day and age, you'd think more people would know how to talk to someone suffering from it. Maybe they even think they do know what to say, but more often than not? People say the wrong thing.

If you're currently suffering from depression (or you ever have), chances are you know the type. They probably mean well, but they often come off as insensitive, offering platitudes like "why are you so depressed? So many people have it worse than you," or "who told you life was fair?" or, even worse, "you're always so negative."

Readers: if you really and truly see nothing wrong with any of the above responses, you might want to click away now. I'm not sure I can help you. On the other hand, if you're cringing or you know you've made similar statements in the past and want to know what to say instead, please keep reading.

Instead of "you know it's your own fault," try "you don't have to go through this alone."

No one wants -- or needs -- to hear they're responsible for a mental health problem. Depression is not something you choose; it is most often something that happens to you due to an imbalance in the brain. Situational and social factors often contribute to depression, but it is never a choice.

Symptoms of depression include, but aren't limited to: feelings of worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, fatigue and/or insomnia, sudden lack of interest in favorite hobbies, persistent aches and pains, flu-like symptoms, headaches (including migraines), and thoughts of suicide.

Read over that list.

I'll wait.

Now read it again.

This is how someone you care about feels. Sometimes it gets better. Sometimes it feels unbearable. Sometimes staying alive feels like you're burdening your loved ones because surely they have to be sick of your shit by now and would rather not deal with it. Do you really think something as guilt-inspiring as "this is your fault" is the right thing to say? Do you think someone would choose to feel that way?

Didn't think so.

Unless you have suffered from depression yourself, try "I can't understand what you're feeling, but I'm here to listen" instead of "I know it sucks. I was depressed for a few days last week."

Okay, so hear me out before you start yelling "but I know how it feels!" Not really. It's like telling a burn victim you know how it feels because of that one time you scalded your tongue because you couldn't wait to take a bite of pizza.

Feeling like shit because you had a bad day at work or your roommate ate your leftovers without asking is not the same as pervasive depression that makes it hard to get out of bed in the morning. Depression and sadness are not the same.

Sadness is an emotional reaction; depression is an illness.

And you know what? Your depressed friend/spouse/family member is glad you don't feel the way they do. They just want you to understand that it isn't as simple as "trying not to be depressed."

Telling someone to try not to feel depressed is like telling someone who needs a root canal to try not to be in pain. It doesn't work that way.

Try "is there anything I can do to help?" instead of "but you didn't seem depressed yesterday; just do what you were doing then."  

Depression takes many forms. Sometimes it's like quicksand, and the more you fight it, the faster you sink. Sometimes it comes in waves like the ocean tide; having depression doesn't always mean you feel depressed every single minute of every single day.

Also, remember that pain is internal. I'm sitting here with a torn right knee that's currently twice the size of the left knee, but I spent the weekend apartment hunting and talking to my prospective instructors, and guess what? I had fun. That doesn't mean I wasn't in pain. The two aren't mutually exclusive.

By suggesting the person "do whatever they were doing" when they seemed to be magically cured of depression, you're implying that they're doing something wrong to cause their depression. It can also send the message that you're not interested in being around unless they're happy all the time. That may not be what you meant, but that is how it may sound.

This is not the time to chime in with another standby: "stop being so sensitive." Try offering a hug. If it's a long-distance friend, send a cute e-card. Sometimes when you don't know what to say, a gesture can say it all for you.

Depression isn't simply being sensitive. Actually, many people who suffer from depression are numb to a point where they don't feel sensitive to anything at all. They've described it as feeling like a ghost: they're in the world, but they aren't capable of interacting with it. Others have compared it to sleepwalking or walking through a fog.

It's a selfish, greedy illness, depression. It can change someone's personality, their likes and dislikes, and the way they view the world at large. When you're dealing with someone who's depressed, please take that into consideration. Just because they've always reacted one way doesn't mean they're going to react that way now.

When in doubt, ask yourself: how can what I want to say help? and will what I want to say do more harm than good? 

No matter how upset you are, never threaten or hurl accusations at someone with depression. 

The correct response to "sometimes I wish I were dead" is not "then maybe you should be locked up." Yes, people do say things like that. When you're dealing with someone who is depressed or contemplating suicide, always remember that their depression is not about you.

Now is not the time for hand-wringing melodramatics. "You're doing this to hurt me" is not only laughable and insulting, but it could translate to "my life would be easier if you died" in a depressed mind. "You should be locked up" is needlessly cruel and insensitive; it implies that having an illness is the same thing as committing a crime. When someone is already in pain and afraid, threatening to rob them of their freedom and autonomy could make things worse.

And if what just popped into your head is "if they're that cowardly, they should just go ahead and do it," then I've got some bad news for you, son: depression's like having 99 problems, and you are one.

Shaming someone for an illness they didn't ask for is the cowardly act.  

I am not recommending suicide as a method of dealing with problems, but considering most people have an innate fear of death, overcoming that fear does not seem like cowardice to me.

Shame is part of the stigma that contributes to the widespread problem that is depression. Nearly 60 percent of adults who are diagnosed don't receive treatment of any kind. Incidences of depression in children increase every year, and yet 80 percent of children, even those diagnosed with severe depression, don't receive treatment. Roughly 80 percent of people who suffer from mental health issues refrain from even discussing their problems in the first place. Of the 40 million people suffering from depression in the United States, over 40 thousand will attempt suicide.

Every person with depression is not suicidal, but every person who attempts suicide is depressed. 

And they all look the same. They look like me. They look like you.

I can't tell them apart at first glance. Can you?

When you're talking to someone with depression, be calm, be compassionate, and be kind. With such stigma surrounding mental health issues, remember that you're extremely important to them if they're opening up to you. It means they trust you, and you should never abuse that trust by feeding into the stigma.

What is the stigma surrounding depression? I've touched on several points already, but the stigma (defined as a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality, or person) surrounding depression is as insidious as it is widespread. More (erroneous) beliefs held about depression include:
- only crazy people have depression
- you can make yourself happy again by watching funny movies
- being depressed means you're a cry-baby
- you're just doing it for attention
- you'll grow out of it on your own
- you don't need help; you need a positive attitude
- antidepressants are bad for you; just go vegan
- all you need is fresh air
- get over it
- you're doing this to hurt me

If you're having trouble talking to someone with depression without getting angry... don't try.  Sometimes a hug and a simple "I'm here to listen, and we're going to find someone who can really help" is all anyone needs to hear. It's certainly much easier to stomach than having their feelings invalidated with "you aren't really depressed"or the downright abusive "just get over yourself."

Maybe you think I'm being harsh. Maybe you're right.

But I have personally heard every single one of the statements listed above at some point in time, and I'm willing to bet a lot of depression sufferers have, too.

And that is not okay.

What is okay is having depression and admitting you need help.

What is okay is having a loved one with depression and not knowing what to say or do.

But now you know what not to say or do, and that's half the battle.

If you or someone you know needs help, there are resources available. Support is only a phone call, e-mail, or text away.

US Hotlines:
    •    Depression Hotline: 1-630-482-9696
    •    Suicide Hotline: 1-800-784-8433
    •    LifeLine: 1-800-273-8255
    •    Trevor Project: 1-866-488-7386
    •    Sexuality Support: 1-800-246-7743
    •    Eating Disorders Hotline: 1-847-831-3438
    •    Rape and Sexual Assault: 1-800-656-4673
    •    Grief Support: 1-650-321-5272
    •    Runaway: 1-800-843-5200, 1-800-843-5678, 1-800-621-4000
    •    Exhale: After Abortion Hotline/Pro-Voice: 1-866-439-4253
    •    Child Abuse: 1-800-422-4453
    •    CrisisTextLine: Text CONNECT to 741741; free, 24/7 support for any crisis

UK Hotlines:
    •    Samaritans (for any problem): 08457909090 (e-mail: jo@samaritans.org; they will try to help anyone, not just UK residents)
    •    Childline (for anyone under 18 with any problem): 08001111
    •    Mind Infoline (mental health information): 0300 123 3393 (e-mail: info@mind.org.uk)
    •    Mind Legal Advice (for people who need mental-health related legal advice): 0300 466 6463 (e-mail: legal@mind.org.uk)
    •    b-eat eating disorder support: 0845 634 14 14 (only open Mon-Fri 10:30am-8:30pm and Saturday 1pm-4:30pm) (e-mail: help@b-eat.co.uk)
    •    b-eat youthline (for people under 25 with eating disorders):08456347650 (open Mon-Fri 4:30pm - 8:30pm, Saturday 1pm-4:30pm)
    •    Cruse Bereavement Care: 08444779400 (e-mail: helpline@cruse.org.uk)
    •    Frank (information and advice on drugs): 0800776600
    •    Drinkline: 0800 9178282
    •    Rape Crisis England/Wales: 0808 802 9999 1 (open 2 - 2:30pm 7 - 9:30pm) Scotland: 08088 01 03 02 (every day, 6pm to midnight) (e-mail: info@rapecrisis.org.uk)
    •    Rape Crisis Ireland: 1800 77 88 88 (24/7)

US/International Hotlines Master List:
    •    http://www.suicide.org/suicide-hotlines.html



  1. Thank you for writing this. Everything you said is spot on. Depression is terrible to live with, and it's terrible for the loved ones who are emotionally supporting someone with depression. It's not the time or place for meaningless platitudes.

    1. You're welcome! I think the problem with a lot of depression advice given is written from a strictly academic perspective by someone who's never experienced it.


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