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What NOT to say to someone with depression

Reading time | 5 mins
When discussing depression or any chronic illness, our language matters. Adam Weitz explores the negative impact of unsolicited mental health advice.

Depression and mental illness have been hot topics this year.

In April, the World Health Organization devoted their annual World Health Day to depression and suicide awareness around the globe with their “Depression: Let’s Talk” campaign.

In 2019, Instagram launched their #HereForYou mental health campaign to break the stigma and highlight mental health issues like depression.

Large-scale initiatives like these are important for bringing awareness to a condition that affects 300 million people worldwide. But in spite of this awareness, I believe there are still a lot of misconceptions about depression and how it affects those living with it.

Even though we’ve made gains in recent years, our culture still struggles with how to talk about depression and mental illness. In my experience this has meant that people often have no clue how to communicate with those of us dealing with this often-debilitating condition.

When talking about depression or any chronic illness, the language we use matters. Even with the best intentions, things that might seem motivational can be hurtful to someone fighting depression.

These conversations can be tough and even awkward to have, but don’t let that scare you away from talking to a friend or loved one about their depression.

To help guide you, here are my recommendations of things you certainly should not say to someone with depression, and we’ll also unpack some ways you can encourage your loved one sensitively.

Talking about depression: The Don'ts

Don’t say: “It’s just in your head”

Many with depression hear this all too often and feel alone because of it. Don’t make the mistake of shrugging off your loved one’s illness.

If you’ve said this to someone recently, please learn more about the different types of depression and how it affects 25 percent of the population in Europe. What you discover might surprise you, but it will certainly make you more sensitive to your friend’s condition.

Don’t say: “I was depressed this one time”

Oh, you were, huh? Good for you. I’ve had my depression compared to grief over loved ones dying, losing a job, feeling sad when it rains, and it gets even more ridiculous from there. Clinical depression is more than just feeling down or grieving a loss. Professionals characterise depression by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and worthlessness that don’t go away on their own. The last time your favorite sports team lost is not the same as depression, so you don’t need to reference that when you’re trying to comfort someone.

Don’t say: “There are a lot of people worse off than you” or “You have many reasons to be grateful”

I speak for everyone with depression when I say, “Yeah, we know.”

We know that there are other people struggling and facing real hardship, but using those experiences to minimise someone’s depression isn’t helpful — and it won’t change the fact that they’re still depressed. Most of the time that just makes us feel even more guilty because we know we “should” feel happy with our lives but we don’t.

Don’t say: “It’s beautiful day”

Depression negatively distorts the way you experience the world around you, and all the sunshine and blue skies outside the window aren’t going to make these thoughts and feelings vanish. Reminding me what’s great about today is often just another reminder that I’m not happy, and that’s just extra guilt I don’t need.

Don’t say: “Happiness is a choice”

OK, well by that logic then so is being cancer-free. You don’t get to choose the chemical makeup of your body, especially your brain, and therefore you have no control over whether or not you end up with clinical depression.

If it were that easy to overcome depression, we’d all make that choice quickly. Believe me.

Don’t say: “You should/You need to… ”

I understand that many people have a real, compelling desire to fix things or to offer advice as a way of showing support. But in this case, please don’t. Unless you have profound or intimate knowledge of depression, there’s not a whole lot you can offer.

Just support us in finding the help we need. It’s helpful when my friends and family are active and encouraging about my recovery.

Don’t say: “I thought you were stronger”

Comments like “toughen up” infuriate me. It assumes that depression is a weakness that we could push through if only we were stronger.

Let me tell you: I’ve been working with people with depression for over a decade, and I can say without any doubt that people with depression are some of the toughest people I’ve ever met.

Don’t say: “You don’t look depressed” or “You’re not one of those people”

Depression doesn’t look any one way. Not all of us are crying into our ice cream every morning. It’s deeper than tears, and the pain we feel is often beyond expression.

Talking about depression: The Dos

Sometimes, the most important thing you can do for someone with depression is listen and educate yourself about the realities of depression to better understand what they’re going through.

Opening up about depression is no easy task, and comments that are ignorant or just not that well thought out can further the stigma that prevents so many of us from reaching out and getting help.

When you have depression, your perception of yourself becomes distorted. You think you’re a burden, that nobody loves you, that you have no value, that everyone would be better off if you weren’t around.

Worse, you hear these every day on an endless loop in your own mind. The lies become so ingrained in your psyche that you believe they’re true.

Some of the best things you can say to your loved one revolve around proving those horrible lies wrong. Though it can be hard to find the right things to say, a few simple words of support can go a long way:

You’re not alone.

You matter.

You’re important.

I care.

I’m glad you’re here.

I’m not giving up on you.

You’re never a burden.

Depression is very nuanced in that it’s unique to each person. This is one of the many reasons why speaking to a healthcare professional who specialises in depression is so important. What works for me doesn’t work for my friends with depression, and what triggers me doesn’t trigger them.

That’s why listening is so vital in your relationship. The more you listen, the more you learn about their unique circumstances. And that’s where you can start to make a positive impact.

Article Resources

NPS-IE-NP-00038 September 2020