Do you know anyone struggling with depression? Or is there anyone in your life who you suspect might be depressed? If the answer is yes, then you probably want to help them but don’t know how.
Comforting someone with depression is a tricky thing. Sometimes, a well-intentioned remark can be misconceived as something hurtful or ignorant, so it’s very important that you know how to be careful with your words. After all, battling mental illness is already hard enough; you wouldn’t want to make it worse for them.
With that said, however, you can still help those struggling with depression in your own small way, by making a choice to be more mindful of what you tell them and how you talk to them. Here are some examples of things you should never say to someone who’s depressed:
1. “You’re not trying hard enough!”
Now, some of you might feel that this one is already a very obvious choice, but a lot of people are actually guilty of saying this to someone with depression. Telling them things like, “You need to work harder at getting better” or “It’s because you’re not doing THIS or THAT enough” discourages them and makes them feel as if you don’t understand how hard it actually is to be depressed.
You may believe that happiness is a choice, but depression is definitely not. Sometimes it’s because of things that are out of a person’s control, like their genetics (Levinson, 2006), traumatic experiences (Shalev et al., 1998), or the chemical imbalances in their brain (Nutt, 2008), so be sure not to make them feel as if you blame them for any of it.
2. “It’s all in your head.”
This is another common mistake a lot of people make when they try to comfort someone with depression. Though we might not see it, mental illness is just as real and serious as any physical illness — sometimes even more so, because of all the stigma surrounding it. In fact, studies show that depression is the most misunderstood mental illness of all (Lim, 2008).
Depression is different from the occasional bout of sadness you might feel during times of hardship. It’s not as simple as going through the normal ups and downs of life. People struggling with depression often find it hard to get out of bed, eat, sleep, or do anything worthwhile, so you shouldn’t tell them that they’re simply “overreacting” or “making a big deal out of everything.”
3. “You have nothing to be depressed about.”
Another common misconception most people have of depression is that there is a specific cause for it. In truth, however, anyone can have depression, no matter how popular, wealthy, or accomplished (Ingram, Miranda, & Segal, 1998).
When you tell someone with depression that they shouldn’t be depressed because they have no reason to be, you may come off as insensitive and unsympathetic. Though your intention might be to remind them of all the blessings they have in life and all the reasons they have to be happy, this isn’t a good way of going about it. Instead, you are making them feel like they are ungrateful.
4. “You seem fine to me.”
This may sound like a compliment to you — “You don’t seem depressed to me” or “You look okay to me” — but to someone who is depressed, it seems as if you are invalidating their feelings and struggles. Saying this will make the person feel bad for ever confiding in you in the first place. It will erode their trust in you and make them more guarded instead of more open with you. Rather, try telling them something like, “You seem like you’re doing well today. I’m happy for you. I hope it continues.” Praising them for their progress and encouraging them to keep going is the more compassionate response.
5. “I know how you feel.”
When you say this, you are most likely trying to convey sympathy and understanding. However, to people who are depressed, it may feel disingenuous or offensive. Unless you’ve ever been diagnosed with clinical depression by a licensed professional, you don’t actually know how the other person feels or what they are going through. Don’t offer them advice that trivializes their struggles. Depression can’t be cured with just a bit of exercise or sleep, a cup of chamomile tea or some new friends and hobbies. It takes a lot of dedication, hard work, resilience, and inner strength.
If you have someone in your life who’s depressed and you want to be there for them, offer them a hug or a shoulder to cry on. Help them see that there is hope and that things will get better.
Let them know you care about them and that they’re not alone in this. You might not completely understand or know what to say, but it makes all the difference that you try anyway.
- Levinson, D. F. (2006). The genetics of depression: a review. Biological psychiatry, 60(2), 84-92.
- Shalev, A. Y., Freedman, S., Peri, T., Brandes, D., Sahar, T., Orr, S. P., & Pitman, R. K. (1998). Prospective study of posttraumatic stress disorder and depression following trauma. American Journal of psychiatry, 155(5), 630-637.
- Nutt, D. J. (2008). Relationship of neurotransmitters to the symptoms of major depressive disorder. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 69, 4-7.
- Lim, L. (2008). Depression: The misunderstood illness. Armour Publishing Pte Ltd.
- Ingram, R. E., Miranda, J., & Segal, Z. V. (1998). Cognitive vulnerability to depression. Guilford Press.