When someone you care about is struggling with mental health, it’s only natural to want to offer some form of advice or wisdom. However, the fact is that even with the best intentions in mind, speaking to someone about their struggles can be a challenge.
Words matter. Especially to someone with depression. Mental illness can make it extremely hard for the person suffering to take action to get better, and that’s why it’s so important to address the situation properly and without blame, judgement, or apathy.
A recent study published in Social Psychology Quarterly found that the attitudes of close friends and family members have the biggest impact on depressed individuals. For this reason, the reaction of loved ones can either help or hamper them on their path to recovery.
At Lehigh Center for Clinical Research, a great deal of our studies and clinical trials revolve around mental health illnesses like depression, and that has given us a great deal of insight regarding such topics.
Let’s discuss in detail about the fact your words may be having on loved ones who are suffering, and what you can say to help make the everyday challenge a little easier. Here are three things you shouldn’t say to someone struggling with depression (and three things you should).
Shouldn’t: “It’s All In Your Head”
Many people who haven’t suffered from depression or other mental illnesses can sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that the problem is imaginary or “made up” in some way. In reality, this could not be further from the truth.
Depression is theorized to be caused by a physical deficiency of mood-regulating substances in the mind. Suggesting that depression is such a simple disorder that one can simply think themselves out if it is not only insensitive, but destructive as well.
People who hear this phrase are likely to feel attacked, as though they are being accused of lying about their condition for attention. This can further demoralize the sufferer, and send them even deeper into a depressive state.
Furthermore, depression is not a condition that merely affects the mind, as there are many physical symptoms of the disorder as well. A depressed individual may also experience chronic body pain, digestive issues, physical fatigue, and headaches.
Should: “Have You Considered Seeing a Therapist?”
While suggesting that depression is simply a psychological disorder is largely unhelpful, it can still be beneficial for those suffering to talk through their condition with a licensed professional.
Reinforcing the many benefits of therapeutic treatment is actually quite important, as it remains one of the most effective options for combating depression. If your loved one has yet to take this step, try telling them that it may be possible to alleviate some of their issues by seeking the right help.
If you or your loved one do not begin to see any improvement from initial treatment in about six to eight weeks, suggesting treatment alternatives can be a good idea.
Shouldn’t: “Can’t You Just Snap Out of It?”
A common solution for treating depression that is often thrown around by those who don’t fully understand the disorder is a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mentality.
While depression can be a frustrating issue for the family and friends of those effective, it is important to understand that it is not something that people can turn off and on at will.
In the same vein, you should never suggest that a depressed individual is not trying hard enough to overcome their mental illness. In fact, having someone tell you to work harder when you are already giving it your best effort can create a feeling of hopelessness and inadequacy.
Try to think of depression as less of a psychological issue and more of a chemical one. Similar to how people with diabetes may need insulin to function, people with depression may require medical intervention, prescription drugs, and support to give them the best chance at success.
Should: “Would You Like to Go For A Walk?”
Rather than throwing out generalized bits of advice regarding willpower and fortitude, it can be much more effective to suggest small and attainable goals, such as going for a nice walk.
Exercise has been shown to be particularly effective at improving mood and boosting energy, and it can be a good idea to ask your loved one to join you for some no-pressure fresh air and light activity.
By definition, depression actively keeps you from wanting to engage in everyday activities, but you can encourage and support your loved one by offering to join them for an outdoor activity you can do together that isn’t competitive or confrontational.
Shouldn’t: “You Have Nothing to Be Depressed About”
In a world ravaged by inequality, suffering, war, poverty, and other strife, it may seem unbelievable to you that anyone in a first-world country with an average first-world life could be suffering from depression, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t their reality.
People with depression lack the internal resources one needs to cope with stress in an effective and healthy way. To the non-depressed person, events or scenarios that constitute inconvenience and minor annoyance may seem insurmountable to someone suffering with depression.
In fact, many people who struggle with mental illness already feel concern over “not having a reason” to be depressed, but depression doesn’t require justification. The experience is highly personal, and you can’t argue someone out of it.
Acknowledging your loved ones pain, expressing empathy, and lending a listening ear are much better ways of handling the situation.
Should: “It’s Good to See You Doing Better”
When someone is depressed, they often carry feelings of guilt and shame about their condition. They may feel that they are a burden on other people’s lives, and these feelings can even lead to suicidal thoughts or acts of self-harm.
If your loved one has been working hard to overcome their disorder and seems to be enjoying some of their favorite activities again, acknowledging and encouraging this can be extremely beneficial to them.
Point out specific improvements you notice, like boosted energy or a renewed interest in favorite pastimes can continue to fuel depressed individuals along their path to recovery.
What you say and how you act matters. While it can be tough to find the right words to say to someone who is feeling depressed, especially if it is someone you care deeply for. Always stay mindful of the words you say and the actions you take. If you aren’t careful, some words can do much more harm than good.
If you think you may have said something hurtful in the past, it is never too late to apologize. You can explain that you weren’t sure how to respond at the time or that you didn’t understand.
You never know what someone may be carrying around with them, and you never know how much an act of kindness or a feeling of remorse could help someone.