Depression is never an easy journey. I suffered from depression for around five years, three of which were the worst years of my life. During this time, I felt misunderstood, broken and more than anything, I felt as though I was unloveable.
Until you suffer yourself, it’s impossible to understand why depressed people act the way they do, and often my own battle with depression was met with a complete lack of understanding.
So, whether you have a friend or a loved one suffering from depression, I’ve listed the most common things said to someone with depression, and whether they’re the right or wrong thing to say. I understand how hard it can be to watch your loved one suffer, yet when you understand how you should approach them best with your words, it can help you both.
1. What not to say: “Cheer up”
When you tell someone to cheer up, you’re assuming that it’s easy to shake off depression. By doing so, you’re trivializing their condition. For someone with depression, ‘cheering up’ is not a simple task, and it’s crucial to understand that no one with depression wants to feel the way they do.
I would often go to work and people would pass me by and say things such as, “Smile!” or the obnoxious, “Cheer up!” and I’d feel overwhelmed with emotion. The fact I’d even managed to get out of bed, get dressed and go to work was a huge achievement. Considering that during my battle with depression, even when I was at work, I would often be consumed by suicidal thoughts and was constantly on the verge of crying, comments like this made me feel worthless.
What to say to someone with depression instead: “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Is there anything I can do to help?”
This doesn’t isolate someone with depression. Instead, it expresses to them that you care enough to notice they’re not having a good day. You never know the inner turmoil someone is going through, and though you may use phrases like “cheer up” to try and make someone smile, it can be difficult to hear when you have depression.
2. What not to say: “I miss the old you.”
These were actual words said to me when I was depressed, and they cut me pretty deep. Having depression is mentally draining, and as hard as it can be to watch someone you love going through depression, it’s much harder having to be the one living with it. Depression can steal your identity and make you feel alone, and therefore when people say things like this that acknowledge you’re not yourself, it can really hurt. These words implied that I was unlovable, that I was hard work, and that it was tiresome being my friend when I had depression. My friend probably meant that she missed seeing me happy, but the words she used brought attention to the fact depression had made me someone I wasn’t, and the fact that I had no control over this was hard to deal with.
What to say instead: “When all this is over, I’ll still be here and so will you.”
It’s important for people with depression to believe that the people they care for most will still be there, whether they get better or not. Depression affects people differently, and while some may overcome their battle with mental health, others will struggle with depression throughout their life, so when your family and friends support you no matter how long it takes you to get better, that’s precious.
3. What not to say: “I know how you feel, I was depressed once.”
This is the worst thing to hear when you have depression. Whether or not the person saying it has actually had depression before, no two people feel something entirely the same way. When you say this, it can make people with depression feel as though you’re downplaying their feelings and struggle.
When I suffered with depression, a family friend who’d also suffered for many years, was a great help to me. She allowed me to talk to her and tell her how I was feeling without making me feel as though we were comparing notes. All too often depression can turn into a game of who had it worse, and this is the last thing you need if you’re depressed.
The definition of depression can also become blurred. I’ve had people tell me that they’ve also suffered with depression, only to explain a bad mood or a bad day, and it can be draining. Depression isn’t something that pops up overnight and goes away in a week or two.
What to say instead: “I can only imagine what you must be going through, but I will try to understand the best I can.”
Even if you’ve had depression, someone who is suffering may experience it differently, and the best thing you can do is to listen. If someone is opening up to you about their depression, they don’t need you to reference that time when you felt exactly the time. Sometimes, all they need is for you to hear them when they speak.
4. What not to say: “You’re being selfish.”
It’s a common misconception that people with depression are selfish, and let me tell you, this is the biggest BS ever. First, I think it’s vital to remember: depression is not a choice. No one chooses to feel the way they do, and by assuming that people are being intentionally ‘depressed’ is a very childish approach to a very serious topic. No one with depression is choosing to behave the way they do.
Second, a person that is struggling with depression is probably already being incredibly hard on themselves. During my battle with mental health, I thought very negatively about myself. I would sit in silence, but inside my head, I would be listing all the reasons why suicide was a better option than living. I felt worthless every single day. I felt like a failure. I felt that I was a burden to those around me. I would have hated depression for making me feel that way, but depression doesn’t give you room to think rationally. So chances are, the person you know with depression is waging a battle inside their head every single day. Nothing about them having depression is selfish. Mental health is an illness, remember that.
What to say instead: “I really miss you. What can I do to help?”
It’s natural to miss the person someone was before they got depressed. I know it was hard for my own family to watch as depression took everything about me that made me me, and turned me into a shell of my former self. It’s important that you don’t voice this though, and instead express an interest to help that person. While you won’t be able to wave a magic wand, asking this question may allow them to speak freely about what’s going on inside of their head.
5. What not to say: “What do you have to be depressed about?”
When it comes to depression, there isn’t always a traumatic or sad event that caused it. For me, I suppressed a lot of emotions growing up, and my parent’s divorce was the catalyst for my depression. I’ve known people to become depressed after a death, and I’ve known people to become depressed out of nowhere. Whether or not there’s a reason behind your depression doesn’t make it any less serious. So questioning why someone is depressed can lead them to feel guilty for how they’re feeling, but the reality is that no one asks to be depressed.
What to say instead: “What you’re going through is real, and you shouldn’t feel bad about it.”
Whether or not you’ve dealt with depression first hand, you can still be a good friend to someone with depression without having suffered with it yourself. Acknowledging that your friend or loved one is suffering and yet reinforcing that they shouldn’t feel bad for going through a bad time will help them to feel supported, and not judged.
6. What not to say: “You just need to get out the house.”
Depression can cause you to isolate yourself, which can then worsen your mental health. But everyone has their own way of dealing with their depression. I had a lot of people telling me what I should be doing when I was depressed. But with my depression, I developed anxiety and going outdoors felt impossible. What may work for you may not necessarily work for someone else. Stop telling your friend or loved one what they should be doing. It’s the same as telling someone what they need to do in order to feel better, and it’s not helpful, however good your intentions are.
What to say instead: “Would you like to go for a walk with me?”
Stepping outdoors can be hard for someone with depression, so by suggesting they join you on a walk doesn’t make it feel like you’re trying to cure them of their depression. Ask your friend or loved one if they’d like to go for a walk with you and if they say no, accept this and don’t ask again. You may find over time that you ask and they will accept, which is great.
7. What not to say: “You just gotta snap out of it.”
I’ve met my fair share of people who are under the illusion that mental health is something you can just ‘shake off’ and it’s insulting. Someone who struggles with depression deals with it every single day of their life, as best they can. And so implying that, if they wanted to, they could just stop feeling that way, is undermining their struggle and this can feel exasperating.
Depression is a serious health issue, and one that takes lives, and so by acting as though their depression is something they’ve imagined is never going to help them to overcome their condition. It lacks compassion, and it will make someone feel misunderstood, which can then make them feel even worse.
What to say instead: “You don’t have to deal with this alone. I am here for you.”
I can’t express to you how important it is to feel supported when living with depression. I lived with someone who made me feel as though my depression was something I was choosing; you’d see their impatience as I struggled to simply ‘pick myself up’ and it felt crushing. It made me feel alone and I withdrew into myself. Be patient, be kind and even if you’ve never experienced something first hand, try your best to understand a situation before judging it.
8. What not to say: “You have such a great life! Why aren’t you happy”
Let me first explain that depression is never as simple as feeling the opposite of happiness. Depression is feeling numb and living in a void that you feel you’ll never escape from. What you do or don’t have in life doesn’t wave a magic wand over your mental health and make it better. In fact, material objects have zero impact on how you feel when living with depression. You could have all the money in the world, a large group of friends and the perfect job, but you can still feel alone and overwhelmed. Insinuating that someone is ungrateful for the life they have when suffering from something they have no control over is selfish. This may cause your friend or loved one to retreat, and stop sharing with you how they feel.
What to say instead: “I understand that you’re hurting. I’m not going to leave you or abandon you.”
Waking up with depression day in day out can become draining. It’s hard when you stop seeing the beauty in the world and instead feel numb. How those around you react to you are important. To make someone feel as though they’ve still loveable and that you’re not going anywhere means a great deal.
9. What not to say: “You don’t LOOK depressed . . .”
The fact that people genuinely believe depression has a ‘look’ is almost laughable. People assume that when suffering with depression, you walk around with a permanent sad face. There is no specific way to look depressed, and don’t buy into the cliché that people with depression are always a sobbing mess who can’t get out of bed. In fact, people that are depressed spend a lot of time trying not to look depressed.
What to say instead: “Tell me more about what’s going on. Help me understand.”
When living with depression, it can be easy to lose sight of who you are. It takes a long time to get to the stage where you stop showering and struggle to get up every morning, but it can be debilitating. When your friends or loved ones are trying hard to understand how you’re feeling, it can go a long way in helping you to feel accepted for this newer version of yourself that depression has caused you to become.
10. What not to say: “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
There is a HUGE difference in feeling sorry for yourself and struggling with depression. People assume that people with depression don’t get better because they enjoy feeling the way they do. It’s ridiculous. When people make statements like this, it can downplay the severity of depression. By making someone feel as though they’re feeling sorry for themselves just because they’re not feeling better by the standards to which you judge, it can cause them to feel guilty for something they have no control over. Someone with depression is already having a hard time, so by putting personal blame on them, you can cause an already negative situation to worsen.
What to say instead: “I can see that you are struggling. What can I do to help you feel better?”
Acknowledging that depression is a struggle and that when people seem ‘down’ they’re not in control of how they feel will help someone to feel free to be open when they have good days and bad days. It’s important to understand that feeling low is part of depression and that when someone is having a particularly bad period in their depression, they may be feeling lousy but they’re not simply wallowing in self-pity. They’re suffering.
11. What not to say:”It’s all in your head.”
Telling someone with depression that their pain is ‘all in their head’ diminishes the fact that depression is a very serious health condition and the reason why so many people struggle to admit to being depressed in the first place. I found it hard to accept that I was depressed because I felt that there was such a stigma when it came to mental health. By telling someone that it’s all in their head, you’re insinuating that depression is something that can be fixed just by someone changing their thinking habits. While depression is a mental illness, it affects the whole person, not just their thoughts. Depression is all consuming and leaves you feeling weak and vulnerable.
What to say instead: “I will try my best to understand.”
You may not have experienced depression first hand, but this doesn’t mean you can’t sympathize or help someone living with it. The best thing my mum ever did was try to understand just how depression made me feel. Never at any point did she make me feel as though I wasn’t trying hard to win my battle against mental health, however frustrating I expect it was for her to watch her daughter become a shell of her former self. The only thing she ever did was accept what I was telling her and be there for me. Try to learn, try to educate and try to help someone you love who is suffering.
12. What not to say: “You’ve laughed lately. Do you feel better now?”
The MOST infuriating misconception with depression is that if someone laughs, they’re miraculously better. I laughed a lot during my depression, and I vividly remember my friend saying, “I had no idea you were feeling that way. You seemed so happy.” You can laugh with depression, just like you can smile when you’re sad. When you have depression, you can even have moments of happiness. It doesn’t mean that you’re not suffering mentally. You have good and bad days, depression doesn’t always consume you.
When I first admitted to my family that I had depression, I grew fearful of laughing around them because I was convinced that they would think I was lying, or exaggerating about how I was feeling. This fear can cause your depression to worsen because you’re forcing yourself to act miserable all the time, even when you have a relatively good day. Never make anyone with depression feel bad if they laugh; in fact, you should relish the fact that even through the dark veil of depression, they have a slight release.
What to say instead: “It’s okay to laugh.”
The reality is that laughing doesn’t dimish the severity of depression. In fact, laughter can help you to have a momentary respite from depression, which can be incredibly draining. Encourage your friend or loved one to laugh and have fun. They may laugh one minute and be crying the next, but it’s important that they still feel as though they’re allowed to have fun and that you’re still understanding of what they’re going through.
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