It can be challenging to think of positive and helpful things to say to someone who is battling with depression, but it can also be especially damaging if our word choice is offensive, intrusive, or misplaced. By paying attention to which pieces of advice, as well as your tone of voice, can help someone feel better, along with the phrases that can make depressed victims feel worse, you'll feel more prepared in how to act.
As a certified health coach, I work with clients on feeling happier and beating signs of depression or mood disorders. I also help my clients understand how best to communicate with those whom they see suffering from such conditions, so that they can help bring their loved ones up and not get sucked down in the process. A lack of happiness and satisfaction with one's life can be destructive to the self-esteem and debilitating to both life and work tasks, as well as personal productivity. If you find yourself, or someone you care for, suffering with depression, you might want to seek help from a therapist or another therapeutic resource. In addition to outside help, taking note of word choice, mood, and tone can be helpful and effective in making the person you are helping feel loved and supported, rather than attacked or misunderstood. Here are eleven things to never say to someone who is suffering from depression.
1. “Just do things that make you happy."
This advice is just plain wrong and unrealistic. When someone is depressed, he or she cannot even imagine things to perk up, as the mental state is so entrenched in negativity that something that would once bring pleasure does not have the same desirable effect. "Depression is not a refusal to be positive or an unwillingness to engage in happy activities," says Chicago-based therapist Chelsea Hudson, LCPC, over email with Bustle. "Rather the very nature of the illness makes it almost impossible to force one’s self to feel happy or motivated and this is usually due to a dysfunction in the serotonin regulation system," Hudson adds.
2. “You need to be more positive.”
"Clinical depression is an organic illness that usually requires both intensive therapy and medication interventions for symptom relief," says Hudson. The average person dealing with depression cannot naturally become more positive without some type of assistance. "Therapy, medication, nutrition, and exercise can all be helpful remedies but people struggling with major depressive disorder are usually not able to just think themselves out of it or muster up the energy to initiate pleasurable activities without intense support and professional treatment," continues Hudson.
3. "Just snap out of it."
This phrase is incredibly insensitive and harsh, and it does not acknowledge that depression is a mental illness. Instead, it makes it appear as though it is a mood state, comparable to someone stepping on your toes during dance class and putting you in a funk. "You would never tell someone with cancer or diabetes to 'snap out of it,' says Hudson. Be more sensitive, and validate the illness for what it really is.
4. "It's all in your head."
This phrase, supplied by licensed family and marriage counselor, Erika Fay, LMFT, over email correspondence with Bustle, makes it appear as though the person in pain has direct control over the matter and is simply making these thoughts and emotions come to life. "It can be extremely useful to ask yourself how you respond to physical pain when faced with emotional pain. For example, if your friend had a wound that was bleeding profusely, would you respond by saying any of those things?" says Fay.
5. "I don't see why you are so upset."
If someone is depressed, it doesn't matter whether you understand the reasoning or not. Plus, there might not even be a hard, concrete reason to discuss. Regardless, the emotions associated with depression are real and should be validated and empathized. "It is best to validate how the person is feeling and ask if there is any way you might be able to support them," says Fay. The best thing you can do is to listen, without judgment, and be there as a resource regardless of your own feelings on the matter.
6. "Think of all the good things you have."
While experts show the importance of gratitude in boosting our wellbeing, when someone is depressed, the last thing he or she wants to do, or even can do, is to express how thankful he or she is for the positive aspects of life. When someone is mentally uneasy, it's hard to get out of the bad state of mind without assistance, and a simple gratitude exercise or a pushy, optimistic statement is not going to cut it. In fact, it'll just make it worse.
7. "You need to get out more and be social."
Someone battling depression is not concerned with attending the latest Beyonce concert or cooking up a casserole for a friend's potluck dinner. Thoughts about social commitments and relationships revolve around apathy, as it's more natural for someone in this state to not care enough to go outside, be with friends or act spirited and happy. This phrase will only make someone feel worse about themselves, and no additional guilt is needed.
8. "Life isn't so bad. There are people starving."
While many world problems are can be devastating, and we should always acknowledge conditions associated with death, poor health, famine, discrimination and sexual assault, among other traumatic experiences, mental illness should be seen as trivial in comparison. Mental health disorders can be just as debilitating, and without proper treatment, might even result in suicide. There is nothing light about that! Instead of making the person suffering feel guilty and ignorant, focus on bringing positive energy and compassion.
9. "Have you tried....?"
Asking questions, such as "Have you tried going to bed earlier?" or "Have you tried doing some cardio, like a spin class?" or offering suggestions that simplify the equation is insensitive and unproductive. Depression cannot be cured through two additional hours of sleep a night. While trying all of these holistic approaches might in turn help, along with guidance from a therapist and perhaps medication, it would have to be a cumulation of factors, not just a practical, one-step answer.
10. "Everything will be OK."
How do you know? Saying that everything will work out in the end is ignorant and dismissive to the actual problem. Depression is an illness that must be taken care of in order for the person to heal and feel better about himself or herself and life in general. Saying this phrase is a way to brush off the illness, as though it'll pass easily with time.
11. "I know how you feel. That happened to me..."
"I know how you feel" is bad on its own, as it makes it seem as though you find a stressful day at work or waiting in line for a Starbucks for an hour to be comparable to depression. Yet, when you divert the conversation then to yourself in an effort to show empathy, but actually seek empathy in return, you are acting incredibly childish and unsupportive. Unless you have dealt with depression in the past, don't act like you have experienced it, and even if you have, don't look for compassion for your own lighter issues (unless you are still suffering from symptoms yourself).
Whether you understand what the person is going through or not, it's best to communicate in a manner that will help the person feel supported, validated and loved. If you have experienced depression yourself, you might be an asset, but still you should encourage that your friend see a professional. If you have never experienced depression, don't act like you have. Simply be there as a helping hand, without opinions, judgment or pushy, positive energy. Let your friend take his or her time to heal.
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