Five Things to NOT Say to Someone With Depression (And What to Say Instead)

It seems it's all too easy to say the wrong thing when someone's depressed. But how can you get it RIGHT? Here are some suggestions...

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Apr 27, 2014
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Depression is incredibly common – between 8-12 per cent of UK people experience depression in any given year. But despite its prevalence, it’s often largely misunderstood. And this is never more evident than in what people say to those suffering from depression. It’s all too easy to get it wrong, even if you’re trying to get it right. So what should you avoid saying? And what can you say instead? Here are a few suggestions I've been mulling over…

What NOT to say No.1: "I'm sure there are LOTS of things you can do to cheer yourself up"Someone close to me once told me to paint my nails and dye my hair to improve my mood...They were well-meaning but if it was that simple, I’d have done it, right?! For someone who’s depressed, ‘cheering up’ is often just a temporary fix or even a mask to please other people (assuming it’s possible at all). So what CAN you do for someone who is depressed? I've found that I often want to be in people's company to just 'be' and not have someone try to ‘cheer me up’. Having a cup of tea with someone who cares but knows they don’t have to fill in conversational gaps helps me to slowly but surely re-enter the ‘normal’ world. No pressure to ‘cheer up’ – perfect. I find this is way more helpful than being dragged out to a 'fun' event that I don't feel capable of participating in – just yet. Sounds so simple band yet it's truly restorative.
What to say instead: "I'm here for you, however you're feeling. Would you like to pop round, no pressure?"


What NOT to say No. 2: "Think of all the good things in your life rather than dwelling on the bad things"
This may sound intuitive to a well person, but when someone is depressed, they can't necessarily see the good things in their life, like loving family, wonderful children or a great job. Their illness, their depression, eclipses the good things - it's inherent in the condition. They can’t see the wood for the trees. When they're feeling better, they'll see it again, but for the meanwhile you're asking the impossible of them. And, actually, it may make them feel even worse - 'I've got all these amazing things in my life and I STILL feel dreadful. This must mean I have no hope at all!' If you know someone with depression, appreciating this may help you to understand they're stuck right now but will hopefully see things differently soon. My favourite (and much used!) mantra is 'This too shall pass'. If you say nothing else to someone, sharing this with them may help them see a clearing in the dark woods of today.
What to say instead: "I can see it must be really hard to see beyond how you're feeling right now but this won’t last forever"


What NOT to say No 3: "Contact me when you're feeling better and maybe we can go out"
There’s no doubt about it, depression can feel monstrously isolating. I used to believe there was a sense of contagion about it, too – ‘Will I make my friends feel depressed, too?’ I’d ponder. That added to my sense of isolation. My natural tendency was therefore to 'disappear' and I lost many friendships through not being able to physically service them by going out. But now I’ve realised staying connected doesn’t have to mean waiting until you feel better. The beauty of modern life is that connectedness comes in many forms - through text, email, social networking sites or phone contact, amongst other things. If you've got depression, reach out to people in ways you feel comfortable. If you're dealing with a friend with depression, you may want to ask them how they'd like you to keep connected so they feel held but not pressurised.
What to say instead: "I'd like to stay in touch to support you - what way would make you feel most comfortable right now?"


What NOT to say No. 4: "I was depressed once but managed to snap out of it"
When you're in the midst of depression, it can feel like you'll never feel happy or useful or fully functioning again. It's as if your perspective has gone and you are seeing everything through a prism of hopelessness, refracting all your thoughts left, right and centre. Being able to somehow understand that this time, these feelings of hopelessness, shall pass and you'll have more clarity and peace in times to come is vital. As each depression comes and goes, I audit them in my mind and realise that I have come through each one and lived to tell the tale. As such, I am able to invoke a roll-call of depressive moments, knowing that after each one I was OK - I survived. So when I'm feeling bad again, I can say 'I got through this before'. I can know I got through it before, even if I can't believe it at that moment.
What to say instead: "I can’t imagine how you must be feeling but I can see it’s difficult for you. I’m here whenever you need me"

What NOT to say No. 5: "But you seemed so happy yesterday!"Depression is like any illness - some days may seem good and like you're on the mend, only to be followed by a challenging day when you can barely imagine feeling well again. If you had a physical condition (angina, for argument's sake) you'd take notice of those days when you felt bad and you'd alter your plans accordingly. And other people would probably acknowledge that your condition – and therefore your mood and your capabilities – will ebb and flow. But when it comes to mental illness, there isn’t always that level of understanding (or sympathy). If you've got a friend with depression, it's important to realise that light and shade may be part of their condition – bad days as well as good, possibly interwoven into no discernible pattern.
What to say instead: "I understand that depression can bring good days and bad days so just take one day at a time"

  • What comments have YOU found frustrating when you've been feeling depressed? And were you able to explain to the person how it made you feel? Also, is there anything anyone has said to you - or anything you've said to anyone else - that has helped with the management of difficult times? I'd love to hear your experiences. Martha x

Martha Roberts also writes a blog at www.mentalhealthwise.com

Go to the profile of Martha Roberts

Martha Roberts

Mental health blogger and award-winning health writer and author , -

I'm a seasoned journalist for national newspapers, magazines & the internet, where I focus on health & wellbeing issues. I'm also a blogger on mental health at www.mentalhealthwise.com, plus a nutritional therapist & author (I wrote 'Sugar Addicts Diet' with celebrity trainer Nicki Waterman for HarperCollins).

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