Depression is a more complicated thing than many people give it credit for. People experiencing depression may find it hard to engage in self-care, socialize, or otherwise do things that require interaction with other people. Depression robs you of valuable mental and emotional energy that often goes into social interaction and self-care.
Not only is this difficult for the person with depression, but it can also make socialization with a person with depression much more challenging. How do you act? What do you do? What do you say? How can you be supportive? What don’t you say? How can you not make things worse?
In this article, we’ll explore things to say and not say to someone who is depressed and give some pointers on navigating the conversation. The truth is that many people feel uncomfortable talking to someone who isn’t in a good mental space. However, it doesn’t have to be that complicated or awkward.
6 Things To Say To Someone With Depression
1. “I’m here for you.”
Depression is often lonely. A person may have a difficult time generally functioning, feel unable to get out and socialize, or even have the energy to reply to a text.
People with higher-functioning depression may still feel alone and isolated, even when surrounded by people, because of the nature of depression.
And while this may seem obvious, it’s worth keeping in mind that depression literally depresses a person’s emotional landscape. That means that people who are high-functional depressed may not be able to experience the feelings and endorphins that come from socializing with other people. Depression can make you feel completely alone in a room full of people.
“I’m here for you” is a powerful sentence that communicates much—assuming that you can actually do it.
It’s okay if you can’t, but don’t tell a depressed person that you’ll be there for them if you are not committed to being there for them. Doing that may just reinforce whatever negative feelings of loneliness and isolation they may already be experiencing.
2. “Can I help?”
Everyone needs a little help sometimes. A person with depression may need a little more help than normal. Depression will rob a person of the energy to conduct the necessary functions of their life.
But, here’s something to consider…
Asking a person with depression, “Can I help?” may be too much for the person to answer. They may not be able to think about or articulate what they actually need if they are in a deep enough low. Depression can dramatically affect cognitive ability, making it difficult to sort out and identify problems that need to be solved.
You may ask questions but then get, “I’m fine.” or “I don’t know.” In that case, try to ask more direct questions that won’t force the person to try to sort out the bigger picture.
Better questions include:
“Do you have food to eat?”
“Are there any errands you need, like going to the store?”
“Can I help you clean up some?”
3. “Do you want to talk about it?”
This question can give you mixed answers. The problem with this question is that depression doesn’t always have a direct cause, particularly for people with mental illness. A person may experience depression for different reasons.
Sometimes depression results from something that happened, a temporary or overwhelming long-term problem. A good example is poverty. Living in poverty is an experience that wears down your emotional resilience because of the stress of trying to make ends meet, pay bills, and take care of whatever maintenance costs come with life. That can cause a person to be depressed.
However, remove the person from poverty, and the depression may disappear. Other reasons and natural occurrences may include the death of a loved one (or pet), losing a job, or a relationship failing.
Though that depression can be severe and matters, it’s different than Major Depressive Disorder or Bipolar-Depression. Disordered depression is a persistent mental illness that doesn’t necessarily have rhyme or reason. Sometimes you’re depressed for no reason other than being mentally ill—that’s just how it is.
Don’t let yourself be offended or dig deeper if you get answers like, “No.” “I don’t want to talk about.” or “There’s nothing to talk about.” Instead, make the offer and let them come to you if that’s what they want to do. But do understand that sometimes there’s just nothing to talk about.
4. “It’s okay to not be okay.”
People with depression may struggle with the idea that they should be okay. They may feel defective for struggling with their mental health or weak because they can’t just overcome it. Sometimes they need a reminder that it’s okay for them to not be okay.
But here’s the complicated part. Some people will be glad for a reminder that they are strong enough to get through whatever it is they are going through. But, on the other hand, some people will not believe what you’re saying due to whatever is going on with them. So, it may not be as simple as depression or even trying to speak through the depression.
It may be a matter of self-esteem and self-worth amplified by the depression that keeps them from believing they can survive what they’re going through. Strong and weak aren’t even good words to use when dealing with mental illness. A person isn’t weak because their mental illness is overwhelming them. Strong and weak are easy words for complicated subjects.
5. There are no perfect words.
The truth is that you can go into talking to someone with the best of intentions, but nothing you say is spoken or received well. Everyone’s different. What’s comforting to one person may not be to the next. On top of that, depression can affect the way a person emotionally responds to a situation. You may get some anger fired back at you that you weren’t expecting.
Most of the time, one-off experiences like that are something that can be overlooked. A chronic issue of anger or disrespect may lean more toward emotional abuse than anything. At that point, you can easily cross the point of being supportive to being abused and enabling.
Sometimes we may just say things relevant to small talk because it’s a habit. For example, you may ask the person, “How are you feeling?” That isn’t necessarily a bad question because they may be feeling different from day to day. However, you shouldn’t be surprised if you get answers like “I feel like crap.” or “I feel nothing.” These are pretty typical answers for someone trying to navigate depression.
You may also want to avoid discussing your problems with your depressed loved one until you clear it with them. “Do you have the energy to let me vent about something I’m going through?” Don’t try to use it as a comparison or to make them feel better about their situation. They may say no because they don’t have the emotional energy. But, on the other hand, they may also say yes because they care about you and want to help, hopefully like you’re helping them. Just ask ahead of time before unloading.
6. “Would you be willing to talk to a professional about it?”
It’s never a bad idea to suggest that someone speak to a professional about what they’re going through. But, there’s a problem. People who don’t have a lot of experience with mental health professionals and the system often assume that it’s simple.
“Oh! Go to a doctor or therapist, get it addressed, and you’ll be fine!” Well, no. Sometimes that happens. Other times people with mental illness can be in therapy for years. Sometimes people are medication-resistant; that is, their body doesn’t respond well to psychiatric medications that would help someone who isn’t medication-resistant.
It can take years, decades, even to find a medical solution. And unfortunately, not everyone does.
You may suggest that they talk to a professional, and they’re already talking to professionals. They may have had a dozen professionals at this point or tried twenty different combinations of medications. Many mentally ill people also get tired of dealing with the system. Trying to hack your way through the garbage you can experience is exhausting.
Don’t be surprised if they are already talking to a professional. A good response is just to confirm it’s a good idea, pivot to a different question, or just spend time with the person.
The Discomfort Of Uncomfortable Conversations
It’s easy to reel off a convenient list of questions that may help you better communicate with a person experiencing depression. However, the actual conversation can be a bit more of a challenge because it may not feel like a normal conversation. You may feel pressured, stressed, or just awkward about it. What if you do the wrong thing? What if you say the wrong thing? What if this person is suicidal? What do you do about that? Is there anything you can do about that?
Understand that you aren’t talking to an entirely different person than you typically know. For the most part, you can talk to them like you would talk to them any other time. In fact, that can help some people. Depression disrupts a person’s life and mental state heavily. Just talking to them like you normally would can inject a brief dose of their regular life which may be a reprieve from what is currently happening with them.
You may find that certain subjects or words have different effects. For example, let’s say you have a rough but not unkind relationship where you talk crap to each other as part of your love language. They may not be sensitive to that kind of relationship under normal circumstances. There are plenty of people who bond over messing with each other. However, if the person is depressed, they may find themselves hurt instead of laughing.
In that situation, the best thing to do is back off and apologize for the moment. Chances are pretty good the person will understand that they aren’t in the best emotional space and may even apologize. Do not respond by doubling down or telling them they are too sensitive. They are sensitive. That’s one thing of many that depression can do.
But what if I feel awkward?
Then feel awkward. Feeling awkward and uncomfortable isn’t going to kill you. However, avoiding the discomfort will reinforce it, and you’ll never learn how to actually be comfortable. The more you sit in your discomfort, the more resilience you can build toward it.
That is assuming you don’t have anxiety or an anxiety disorder that may cause those feelings in general. It’s not your fault, and you may not find yourself growing comfortable by sitting in discomfort. That’s how it generally works for people who don’t have anxiety.
Should I be positive?
Positivity can be tricky when you’re talking to someone going through a hard time. It can so easily teeter into toxic positivity. For example, there’s the common phrase, “Everything will be alright. It’ll get better.”
You hear that all the time, even from mental health professionals and advocates. However, anyone around the block will know that’s just not true. Sometimes it doesn’t get better. Sometimes everything isn’t alright. For example, suppose you’re talking to someone struggling with trauma or mental illness for decades. In that case, they will automatically assume you have no idea what you’re talking about.
Instead of positive, it’s better to sit toward the middle. Be optimistic, hopeful, and encouraging, but don’t make promises you can’t keep or try to forecast the future. “You’ll be fine!” Maybe. Maybe not. Lying to people going through a hard time is a great way to further alienate them and keep them from talking to people in the future.
What can you say? You can instead focus on the present and actionable statements like the examples we’ve already given. Truthful statements like “I’ll be here for you” are also a good option as long as you try to follow through on them. If not, it’ll be better for you not to say those things so it doesn’t reinforce the loneliness that may accompany depression.
Know The Signs Of Suicidal Thinking
Suicidal thinking may come with depression. One way to feel more comfortable is to learn to understand the cues that someone might be considering suicide. That way, you can have a better idea of where their mindset might be. However, this is vitally important: some people can mask their suicidal intentions and thoughts extremely well.
It gets much easier to do if you’ve done it for years and people often overestimate how well they can read people. So, by all means, keep an eye out for these signs; but do remember that you’re not a mind-reader. You can never know everything that a person is thinking.
Look for some of the following signs from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):
– Sudden and drastic mood swings, including happiness. They may finally feel happy and comfortable that they are now exerting control over their own life, even if that means losing them.
– Giving away their possessions, updating or creating a will. For example, people who are suicidal may give away their belongings to people they want to have them.
– Unclear or ambiguous statements about a future they may not be in.
– Extreme feelings of hopelessness and sadness. Strong expressions of sadness and crying.
– Withdrawing from activities, people, friends, and loved ones.
– Expressing that they are tired of feeling like a burden to others.
– Talking about wanting to die. Openly discussing suicide or plans for suicide.
– Previous suicide attempts. A person with a history of suicide attempts is more likely to attempt again.
If you see these signs, the best thing to do is to encourage the person to seek professional help or contact their professionals if they are already receiving services. Try not to leave them alone with dangerous implements and seek help from professionals if they won’t.
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- How To Explain What Depression Feels Like To Someone Who’s Never Had It
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