7 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who is Depressed (and What to Say Instead)
Okay, I’ve been battling major depression for many years now.
At first, I thought it was seasonal, but as my life progressed, it became clear that it wasn’t. My depression became more intense each year. In some cases, I have felt profoundly debilitated by it; yet, in other cases, I feel unexpectedly hopeful. Either way, this has been a long road, and certainly not an easy one.
And I’m not alone. According to the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), nearly 1 of every 12 Americans suffers from depression — and for women, that average doubles to about 1 in every 6. (And these are just the cases that are diagnosed and counted towards the statistic!) That means depression is a pretty common condition. So why do people keep asking ignorant questions or making toxically positive remarks about how people choose to cope with their depression?
Here are 7 of these ignorant, toxic narratives. And they are 7 things you should never, never say to someone who is suffering from depression.
1. Don’t worry, it will get better!
OK, really? This is what you’re going to say to someone who feels inexplicably hopeless or sad or numb? It’s futile to tell someone with depression that things will “get better.” Some people with depression have no faith that things will get better. And some tell themselves the same thing every day but struggle to believe it. What makes you think that it’ll be any more effective when it comes out of your mouth?
2. Look on the bright side!
There is no “bright side” to depression. This isn’t just Oh, boo hoo, my ice cream fell on the ground, damn it! I’m really upset. This is a true mental health condition. If depression could be cured by simply “looking on the bright side,” people wouldn’t grapple with it today. Not to mention that depression has many other manifestations besides just being negative or sad. Depression can also present itself in the form of numbness, fatigue, lack of motivation, or countless other symptoms. “Looking on the bright side” isn’t going to solve any of that.
3. Well, at least you don’t __________!
Saying “at least” to someone with depression (or really, any mental health condition) is completely insensitive. It’s basically diminishing someone’s pain and saying to them, OK, sure, it sucks, but it could be waaaaay worse so can’t you just suck it up? No. Just no. Mental illnesses do not discriminate. Just because someone has a good life, or because someone exists out there who might have it worse than they do, does not take away the pain and anguish that they’re feeling. Realizing someone else’s struggles shouldn’t be used as a way to mend our own. We need to collectively grow together, validate each other, and take care of ourselves without comparing our hardships.
4. Have you tried ___________?
Ummm, yeah. Chances are, they have tried whatever it is that you’re about to suggest. Unless you’re legitimately a psychologist, doctor, psychiatrist, neuroscientist, or some other mental health or brain professional, people don’t want your advice (unless they explicitly asked for it). People with depression are used to playing the game. They’re used to trying all the tricks in the book, taking the meds, seeing the therapist, practicing mindfulness, eating healthy, exercising, or whatever it is that you’re going to recommend. We are in charge of our own health, and we don’t need the advice of someone who’s never struggled with this. And depression has no cure. It has treatments, but no cure. Don’t assume that your advice is going to be unique or gratifying.
5. I can cheer you up!
OK, cheer me up? Ha. Contrary to popular belief, depression isn’t just a mood. It’s not a switch we can turn on and off. It’s not something we wake up with that disappears the following night when we go to sleep. It’s chronic. It’s brutal. It’s completely souring to a lot of life experiences. So no, you can’t “cheer me up.” To imply that means to imply that someone’s problems are so small that they can be solved by virtually anyone and anything else. But that’s not true. If people with depression knew how to “cheer up,” we wouldn’t be depressed anymore.
6. Well, you need to stop doing __________. I think you’re just making it worse.
Please, please, please don’t tell someone with depression how to live their life (I mean, don’t tell anyone how to live their life, though). We already know what we’re doing. We know which coping mechanisms help us and which ones don’t. And some days, we just say f*ck it because even though sleeping for hours on end might not be productive, it makes us feel less overwhelmed. So give people license to feel however they want to feel and to cope however they see fit. Who are you to tell someone else how to take control of their health? If you’re concerned about them, have a gentle, non-patronizing discussion instead.
7. You’re being so [dramatic/selfish/negative/etc.]. Can’t you just move past this?
No, we can’t move past it. Depression isn’t dramatic. It isn’t selfish. It isn’t negative or anything else. It’s a mental illness. It takes time to get better, if it ever really gets permanently better. And more than anything, it’s out of our control. People have to realize that. People with depression might look like they’re being dramatic or selfish or negative, but the truth is, we have no control over our moods and our mental health conditions. We just need to find ways to help cope with them. And by saying “can’t you just move past this?” you’re still invalidating us. This is a chronic illness, not just a periodic feeling. Don’t make us feel weak for what we’re going through or how we choose to deal with it.
OK, so now that we’ve gone through what not to say, what should you say?
Well, here are the above scenarios, but with alternative ways to approach the situation. Generally, a good way to discuss depression is in a gentle, open way, without expecting too much of the other person. Make sure to validate them and ask them for what they need or want, not what you think they should need, want, or do.
INSTEAD OF: “Don’t worry, it will get better!” →
SAY: “I know it’s probably hard to believe that this will ever get better, but I believe in you and your strength. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you through this.”
INSTEAD OF: “Look on the bright side!”
SAY: “I understand that there’s not anything positive about this. I feel for you, and I’m sorry for all that you’re going through. I’m always here if you need me.”
INSTEAD OF: “Well, at least you don’t ___________!”
SAY: “I know that this is really hard.” (And if THEY try to compare their own pain to someone else’s, shut it down:) “Your pain is valid, regardless of anyone else. You have a right to feel however you want to feel.”
INSTEAD OF: “Have you tried ______________?”
SAY: “Is there anything that I can do for you right now to help?” or “Is there anything specific that helps you in these situations? I’m happy to _________ so that you can have some time to ___________.”
INSTEAD OF: “I can cheer you up!”
SAY: “I’m sorry to see you so down. I want you to know that I don’t expect you to be optimistic right now, and you should feel entitled to your own emotions. If there is anything I can do for you, I’m here.”
INSTEAD OF: “Well, you need to stop doing ______________. I think you’re just making it worse.”
SAY: “I think you should do whatever you feel like you need to do right now. I’ll always support you.” (or, if you’re legitimately concerned about someone’s habits:) “Does doing ______________ usually feel helpful to you? I’m concerned that it might not be a healthy coping mechanism. I don’t want to tell you what to do. I’m trying to understand.”
INSTEAD OF: “You’re being so [dramatic/selfish/negative/etc.]. Can’t you just move past this?
SAY: “I realize that this has been/is a long journey. I think you’re completely valid in whatever it is that you’re feeling right now. But I know you’re resilient and strong, and I have so much faith in you. How can I help?”
Basically, what we need is to be acknowledged, validated, and supported. It’s nice of you to tell us you believe in us. It’s nice of you to verbally acknowledge that you can’t understand what we’re going through. And even if you can, it’s still nice to hear that our emotions are valid, rather than having to sit and hear you criticize. And it’s nice when people extend their help — even if we don’t take them up on their offer. The key trick is just to not pretend that you know someone’s situation. Don’t assume that you know the best coping mechanism. Don’t assume that the things that are helpful to you will also be helpful to them. Don’t try to explain someone’s mental illness to them. Let them sit with it. Let them know you are here. Let them know that you stand with them, and that you believe in them, and that they are entitled to feel and do what they need to do for themselves right now.
Because there may not be any “right” way to discuss depression, but there are certainly “wrong” ways that can damage someone’s narrative.
Admit what you don’t understand, and be gentle.
And even if you do understand, we’re all living different lives.
Health isn’t a one-size-fits-all. It’s a journey. So instead of telling someone how to live it, just be there for them through the ride.