My recent blog post focused on what not to say to a depressed person. I presented common statements that people tell friends and loved ones in an attempt to alleviate the depressed person’s discomfort, but more so their own unease in the face of a difficult, heart-wrenching situation. Unwittingly or not, statements that put blame on a depressed person’s willpower, lack of motivation, or negative mindframe often backfire and increase that person’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness. The statements sometimes come from a fundamental misunderstanding of the depression illness. It is a biopsychosocial condition that traps its victims in a circuitous broken-record mindset that creates vulnerable, despondent thinking patterns.
So how can well-meaning people provide support to someone with depression, aside from avoiding tendencies towards judgment? How can one show empathy and understanding? Here are 6 things to say to connect with someone living with depression:
1. "I’m here for you."
Just offering to be there for someone with depression helps. Someone who feels trapped in a cycle of self-loathing often feels unworthy of reaching out to people around them. They often worry about being a burden or nuisance to others, since they are aware of how infectious their mood can be for those nearby. When you decide to let them know you will be there for them, regardless of their fears of judgment or of wasting your time, they can feel less alone and feel less social pressure. You don’t even have to necessarily say anything to them while you're with them. This can help put a crack in the cycle of negative self-worth and enable them to realize people still care regardless of their sad outward presentation.
2. "What can I do to help?"
Depressed people may not necessarily be in a state of mind to know or say what will help them, but just hearing someone's willingness and openness can help lift their spirits. Even if they say nothing needs to be done, they have heard you. They can sense that you care, and that can reassure them when they're caught in guilt-ridden thinking. If they do request something, you’re in a great position to help. Even just being there to listen to their worries can help.
3. "I like [X/Y/Z] about you."
Low self-esteem becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy with depression. It leads to feeling misunderstood and out of sync with everyone else. Depressed individuals often mentally beat themselves up. Hearing positive reinforcement can help soften their self-berating tendencies and test the reality of their thoughts. Do not offer fake praise, but share honest reasons why you enjoy the person’s company or love them. Often their mood skews their perception of their lovability.
4. "Yeah, that is lousy."
Some negative outlook during depression is not necessarily skewed or delusional. Although some issues are magnified, or the person can become oversensitive to a bad event, there are often real stressors that get them down. It’s important to acknowledge those concerns when they're brought up, so a person doesn’t feel they aren’t being heard or are being misunderstood, ignored, or forced to be artificially happy. If they don’t feel alone in seeing a problem, they feel there is potential to move forward.
5. "There are ways to get through this difficult time."
If you notice someone falling into a serious depression and not improving, despite offering your finest support, the best thing you can do is to guide them to professional help. Taking that step can feel scary for most people. Being there to reassure and accompany them in the process can make the difference between someone falling through the cracks or not. Feel free to reach out to mental-health resources online or telephone hotlines as needed; to people you know who are mental-health providers; or look up NAMI. Help people make appointments with therapists and/or help them consider adjunct medication carefully. Take someone to an emergency room if you are really worried about their safety. Negotiating the fragmented mental-health system can be tricky, so your advocacy can really matter to someone who can’t fight for themselves.
6. "I’ve been through it, too."
Coming from a place of mutual suffering can matter to someone who feels that no one understands them, or feels too ashamed to talk about their situation. More stories are shared in the media, books, and magazines about people from all walks of life who have gone through mental illness and struggled to survive and improve. The more people talk about the reality of their conditions, the less misinformation will confuse the general public. It will help reduce ongoing feelings of stigma, loneliness, and social punishment, allowing people to see the potential for recovery.
Overall, the goal in helping a loved one or friend with depression is to be caring and supportive, but also realistic and open to their state of mind. Each individual case of depression can be much more complex than I’ve outlined here, especially if complicated personality traits or problematic behaviors or substance abuse issues are mixed into the equation. In general, accept a depressed person without expectations of quick change or judgment—let them know they are loved and not alone in their struggles. Your caring can make a real difference.