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6 Things Not to Say to Someone Experiencing Depression

And 6 alternatives.

Key points

  • How people show up for a friend with depression is important.
  • People don't have to make their loved ones' depression go away or be their therapist.
  • It's important to know when to help friends or loved ones get professional support.

When someone you care about is struggling, it can be difficult to know what to say. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Even the most well-intentioned of us are vulnerable to react in ways that can be harmful. Usually without even knowing it. Of course, there are no magic words. I don't mean what follows to be a script of any kind. Being real is just as important as being helpful. Still, what follows are some common problematic ways that people sometimes react when someone is going through something and some alternatives.

1. I don't have time for this.

Your friend has reached out to you for help, or you might be noticing that they are struggling. This is rough. It's natural to want to help but you might not know how. Or you might need to get to work or not have the mental capacity to show up right now. This is okay. Your friend is not trying to burden you. Depression is not a choice. Still, you can't be expected to be all things to all people at all times.

Instead, Try This: You matter and I know you are hurting. I need to get to work (or whatever it is that you need to get to. If you simply don't have the capacity it's okay to say that too). Are you going to be okay? Who can you talk to now? I know it might feel strange for the first time, but if you are needing to talk to someone right now the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 9-8-8 is always there. It links you to a team of mental health professionals who genuinely are just there to help you. They have a chat and text too.

2. Stop manipulating me.

When someone is hurting it's normal to want to help. Sometimes, we don't have the resources or the person is asking for something unreasonable. You don't have to do anything to change someone's situation. Even listening, being with someone in what they are experiencing, has power.

Instead, Try This: I might not be able to change your circumstances, but I can be here for you.

3. We can talk anytime. Even 3 a.m. As long as you want.

Extending your friend time to talk when you can is a kind thing. Still, when someone is truly struggling, they might need more help than you can provide. By not setting clear boundaries around this, you set yourself up for resentment and burnout. You might want to stop answering the phone or begin to feel overwhelmed. Similarly, if your friend believes you answer and you sleep through their 3 a.m. phone call, your friend could feel let down or more hopeless. Setting the right parameters could be the difference between being there in a helpful way or not.

Instead, Try This: You know I'm here for you. The best time to get ahold of me is between 6 p.m. and 12 a.m. (or whatever it is for you). I care about you. Even if I'm not available I hope you will reach out to someone. There are several crisis lines out there and support groups. You can talk to someone at any time. Even 3 a.m.

4. You should be grateful.

This one is tricky because gratitude can be a resource for mental health. It's all in timing and wording. Remarking just be glad to you have a home is somewhat like saying, "I know you broke your bone and are in pain. But hey, you still have all your other bones." It's okay to talk about the positive, with the right timing, and in a way that's not shaming. Depression can also make it difficult to remember the good things. It encourages a kind of enhanced negativity bias. It's okay to mention the good things, just not as a way to distract from what your friend is talking about.

Instead, Try This: This hurts. And let them talk. If you've been talking for some time and would like to try to spin the conversation toward something positive try, "Can I ask you a question about something? I saw your garden last week, it was so beautiful. How's it doing now?"

5. I can't help you with this.

At times your friend might come to you for help with things that are beyond what you can help with. That's okay. You can still assist your friend in finding someone who can.

Instead, Try This: Hey, I am so glad you told me about this. You know, there is help out there. Therapy helps a lot of people. If you have questions about that, I'd be open to answer or help you find the answers. I can also help you with finding resources if you'd like.

When I was a college student, I remember at least once when a fellow student was having a hard time. It was beyond what I could help with even though I wanted to. So, I told them about the campus counseling center. They were up for it, so I asked if we could walk there together. It can mean a lot to have someone with you when you are struggling and trying to figure out where to get help.

6. How do you think this is affecting me, or the other people in your life?

Your friend's depression might be affecting you and others. No one chooses to have depression just like no one chooses to have asthma or heart disease. You probably wouldn't say this to your friend living with cancer even if their cancer was hard on you. It's not their fault. People experiencing depression often feel like a problem for those around them. Questions like this strengthen that unhealthy way of thinking.

Instead, Try This: This is hardest on you. Right now, let's just focus on getting you what you need. It is also okay to reach out to support yourself. Support communities exist both online and in person for people who love someone living with mental health challenges like depression. Talking in a confidential space to people who have been there and getting guidance can help.

In Closing

When someone reaches out, in ways, this is a compliment. It means they trust you enough to talk about some tough stuff. At the same time, friends cannot be therapists. Yet, as friends, we can listen. That means a lot. How you respond to someone who has reached out to you could have a real impact on them and their well-being. Helping get them to the right spaces, showing that they are not alone, and letting them know that someone cares, are things that can save lives.

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