Warning: This article deals with the topic of mental health, and has mentions of suicide. It may be triggering for some. If you or someone you love is in need of support, Lifeline (13 11 14) is available 24/7, free of charge.
Whatever your experiences with own mental health, it’s daunting to find the perfect thing to say when someone you care about is struggling with depression. But it’s easier to figure out what not to say.
All too often, someone who is depressed will “feel ashamed” and “mistakenly believe they should be able to overcome it with willpower alone,” writes Mayo Clinic. Unfortunately, our words have the power to exacerbate those feelings of shame, which can drive someone to sink deeper into their depression. When someone is depressed, they aren’t themselves in their thinking, feelings, and body, “and that means that every word you say to them really matters,” says Roseann Capanna-Hodge, an integrative mental health expert, speaking to Parade.
Assuming you want to help your loved one, it’s natural to feel like you’re walking on eggshells to avoid saying the wrong thing. Some responses you blurt out instinctively end up being unhelpful, factually incorrect, or shame-inducing. Below are some common phrases that you should avoid saying to someone struggling with depression, as well as what you can say to help them instead.
“You always seem happy, you don’t seem depressed.”
Depression doesn’t always “look” a certain way. Familiarise yourself with the common signs and symptoms, but know that depression manifests differently from person to person.
When you say something that conveys disbelief in the other person’s mindset, like in the statement above, you could inadvertently instill a sense of doubt. Well if I don’t look depressed, maybe I’m not really struggling? Am I overreacting? Am I crazy? Considering the stigma attached to mental illness, those feelings of doubt may make someone reluctant to seek treatment.
“Happiness is a choice.”/ “It’s all in your head.”
“People don’t choose to be depressed,” Anderson says in Parade. “It’s not ok to blame or insinuate that a person’s disorder is their fault or that their psychological suffering is a choice.”
When you frame depression and happiness as deliberate choices, you oversimplify the issue at hand. Someone going through depression will not feel like they can simply “cheer up” or “snap out of it.”
If you find yourself wanting to tell someone that their depression is entirely within their control, think about this guideline from Healthline:
If you wouldn’t say something to someone living with a physical condition, like diabetes or cancer, you probably shouldn’t say it to your friend with depression.
Would you tell someone to “snap out of” a broken leg? Probably not.
“This too shall pass.”
This, or any other platitude like “let it go,” or “time heals all wounds.” In addition to being clichéd and impersonal, “reciting platitudes and inundating the conversation with toxic positivity could exacerbate the feelings of guilt and shame that individuals with depression already combat on a day-to-day basis,” psychiatrist Dr. Leela R. Magavi told Insider.
It’s a challenge to find the right thing to say, and it’s easy to lean on phrases like “stay strong” or “things will get better.” However, if this is all you say, the person you’re talking to might be left wondering if you really took them seriously at all. (We have some ideas for open-ended questions and non-platitudinal words of comfort at the bottom of this article.)
“Everyone gets down sometimes.”
De-stigmatizing mental health is one thing; normalizing it to the point of dilution is another thing entirely. So while a statement like the above may be true, it’s also pretty dismissive. If someone is constantly told that the way they’re feeling is “normal,” they’re much less likely to seek the treatment they need.
You can recognise the fact that someone’s depression is nothing to be ashamed of, but avoid making them feel like they’re overreacting to a highly personal, painful experience right now.
“You’re acting selfish.”
Depending on your relationship to the depressed person, you might feel at the end of your rope. Remember, “person dealing with clinical depression is likely having a hard time keeping up with their own personal life,” writes clinical therapist Oddesty K Langham in Psych Central. “They are not selfish; they are just not well. They may not have the capacity to be and do everything that someone else wants them to be or do.”
Even if you’re personally frustrated, try to keep perspective. Your loved one is struggling, and accusing them of being selfish won’t help either of you in the long run.
“But look at how great your life is.”
Similarly: “It can’t be that bad;” “It could be worse;” “You think you have it bad…”
Comparisons don’t help a depressed person. “Depression is highly personal and does not warrant a justification of any kind. Any comparison could completely minimise and dismiss someone’s daily life experience,” says Magavi in Insider. These statements are dismissive and make people question whether they “deserve” to feel depressed (which is a faulty way of thinking about mental health).
“Just try eating better and exercising!”
While it’s true that exercise can help to manage depression, it’s not a standalone treatment plan. With a comment like this, you risk implying that all someone needs to do is hit the gym to cure a serious mental illness. This is scientifically inaccurate, not to mention condescending. Throw in the fact that someone might be struggling with their body image on top of their depression, and this sentiment could be a recipe for disaster.
There are no doubt times where healthy lifestyle changes would have a positive impact on someone’s mental health. Let those comments come from a professional. Instead, consider cooking your loved one a healthy meal, and asking them to join you on a walk.
So, what should you say to help someone experiencing depression?
Don’t let all the phrases above discourage you from saying anything at all. The key to supporting someone struggling with depression is to make it clear that you’re there for them. Focus on phrases that demonstrate unconditional care, not judgment. Here are some ideas you can use:
- Thank you for telling me.
- I’m here if you want to talk.
- I love you / You’re important to me / You’re not alone.
- Have you spoken to [doctor, therapist, family] about these feelings?
- This must be hard for you, but you’re doing the right thing by talking about it.
- What can I do to help?
When in doubt, lean on open-ended questions and validating statements about what they’re going through. Often the most helpful thing you can do is simply listen to your loved one. You can also remember to check-in with them regularly, even (or especially) if they aren’t able to reciprocate.