Depression affects nearly 15 million adults—about 6.7% of the U.S. population—every year. The severity of depression varies from person to person, with some people experiencing only mild depression and others experiencing depression that is debilitating. While the cause of depression is not clearly understood at this time—it’s likely a result of a number of factors such as genes, environment, brain chemistry, and overall health—the odds are high that someone in your life will eventually experience the condition.
“Mood disorders, including depression, are the most commonly diagnosed mental health issues,” said Andrea Risi, a Denver-based therapist and GoodTherapy.org blogger. “Unless you’ve experienced depression, it is difficult to understand what someone is going through.”
A supportive environment can help your loved one tackle depression and work toward wellness. The wrong words, however, can leave a person feeling undervalued or blamed and less likely to lean on or confide in you.
Here are suggestions for what not to say to a person experiencing depression:
‘Just take medication!’
Not all people with depression get better with medication, and even when they do, the decision to take medication isn’t easy. Some people prefer natural remedies, and antidepressants can cause sexual problems, weight gain, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, sleep disturbances, and other frustrating side effects. Your loved one has the right to choose whether or not to take medication, and if you try to force him or her into a prescription cure, your loved one may feel controlled or demeaned.
Instead, talk about what you can do to help him or her. If your loved one is considering medication, offer to help him or her research options.
Just as it is important not to discourage someone from taking medication, it’s equally important not to encourage someone to cease taking medication. For those whose lives are improved with medication, the change can feel miraculous. But the choice to stop taking medication can lead to more depression. Support your loved one’s choices and ask him or her how those choices affect the depression.
‘Stop being so self-involved!’
To an outsider, the negativity a depressed person feels can be a mystery. It might seem like your loved one has nothing to be unhappy about, or even like he or she is avoiding making healthy lifestyle choices, but depression distorts people’s thoughts in a way that makes it challenging for them to be positive. This, in turn, can make it tough to make healthy choices.
Instead of judging your loved one’s thoughts and feelings, try offering a distraction instead. A movie date or coffee break may help your loved one feel supported and valued.
Meri Levy, a therapist based in Lafayette, California, said it can be challenging to support a loved one with depression, but it’s worth the effort.
“It is so difficult for friends and family to know what to say to a loved one who is suffering from depression,” said Levy, who specializes in postpartum depression for The Good Therapy Blog. “In my experience, it makes a huge difference to acknowledge what a difficult time this is, and to express genuine caring.”
‘It’s not that bad.’
The severity of depression varies, but for a small number of people, depression is so painful that it leads to suicide. It doesn’t matter if your loved one’s life seems perfect. His or her brain has distorted the world in such a way that everything seems dark or bad, and you can’t shame your loved one out of these feelings by telling the person how good he or she has it.
Instead, try complimenting your friend on small achievements and empathizing with his or her experience. Positive statements that acknowledge what your loved one is experiencing—such as, “I know it’s hard for you to go to work right now, but I’m proud of you for pulling it off”—can go a long way toward helping a loved one feel understood.
“A person experiencing depression often cannot absorb positivity the same way as non-depressed people,” said Angela Avery, a GoodTherapy.org blog contributor who has a therapy practice in Clarkston, Michigan. “So telling them, ‘It’s not that bad’ is like saying, ‘Snap out of it!’ and creates further harm.”
We all want to empathize with people we love, but we cannot fully know what another person’s experience is like. Saying you understand may be received as minimizing the other person’s feelings.
Instead of saying you understand, work to be more understanding. Ask your loved one about his or her experience, actively listen to what he or she has to say, and ask what you can do to make the symptoms feel a little less difficult.
Instead of saying you understand, work to be more understanding. Ask your loved one about his or her experience, actively listen to what he or she has to say, and ask what you can do to make the symptoms feel a little less difficult. For example, picking up the kids or making dinner can feel challenging for someone facing depression. By offering to tackle these tasks for your loved one, you may provide him or her with temporary relief from feelings of overwhelm.
“Letting the person know that you want to help in any way you can is better than offering advice or trying to change the person’s perceptions,” Levy said. “Checking in regularly, letting your loved one know you’re available if he or she needs to talk, and expressing faith that he or she will get through this are the most important ways you can help.”
‘Happiness is a choice.’
For people who don’t struggle with depression or other mental health challenges, this may be true. It’s unlikely that anyone would willingly choose depression, though. Your loved one cannot will his or her way out of depression, just as your loved one can’t will away diabetes or cancer.
“There is a multitude of books, classes, and other psycho-educational tools on how to choose happiness, or harness the power of positive thinking. These can be extremely helpful in the process of self-improvement or confidence building, or even as coping strategies. However, for someone in the grips of clinical depression, such sentiments may not only prove fruitless, but could serve to further exacerbate feelings of guilt or shame, already powerful forces often present in the storm of depression,” said Allison Abrams, a New York-based therapist who writes for GoodTherapy.org. “Rather than contributing to your loved one’s sense of helplessness, try to empathize and realize depression is never a choice.”
Chantal Marie Gagnon, a Plantation, Florida-based therapist and GoodTherapy.org blog contributor, said happiness and unhappiness can coexist.
“If people did not have the power to change their perspective and improve their mood, then cognitive behavioral therapy would not be so effective,” Gagnon said. “Individuals suffering from depression did not consciously choose to become clinically depressed, but they do have a responsibility to seek help because depression affects entire families.”
Families, too, have a stake. Consider researching the condition so you can better understand what your loved one is up against.
“If you haven’t been personally touched by depression, there are ways for you to be empathetic and understanding,” Risi said. “Besides asking your loved one directly about his or her experience with depression, you can empower yourself with facts. Look for information about depression on reputable and professional websites like the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Mental Health America (MHA), the American Psychological Association (APA), and GoodTherapy.org.”
Most of us know the pain we can cause if we directly call someone we love “crazy.” When you mock your loved one’s behavior or feelings, or when you tell others about your loved one’s worst and most embarrassing moments, you’re undermining his or her value as a person. People with mental health conditions frequently feel stigmatized and marginalized, and telling someone he or she is “crazy” can spur more difficult feelings or thoughts.
Instead, focus on your loved one’s successes. Make yourself an ally who’s available to attend therapy sessions, pick up slack around the house, or lend a listening ear.
“We tend to dismiss what we don’t understand, and the six comments highlighted here pinpoint our discomfort and lack of knowledge,” Avery said. “The more we know, the better we are able to help in a constructive way.”
- Depression Statistics. (n.d.). Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Retrieved from http://www.dbsalliance.org/site/PageServer?pagename=education_statistics_depression
- Depression (n.d.). National Institute of Mental Health. Retrieved from http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/index.shtml
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