If you have a friend or family member who is suffering from depression, you may not know what to say or you may say things that make the person feel worse. So how can you express your support?
Although you have the best intentions, it’s a difference between what you mean to say and what’s really being heard, said Lauren Costine, PhD, chief clinical officer of Convalo Health, in Los Angeles, Calif.
Here are 10 things you should never say to someone with depression and what to stay instead.
1. “Don’t think about it.”
“The thing about depression is that it’s not something you can will away. It’s a biologically based medical condition of the mind and the body,” said Dr. Susan Noonan, a certified peer specialist and consultant in Boston, Massachusetts and author of “When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do.”
What’s more, when the person with depression hears this, he may actually think more about how he feels, especially if he is plagued by ruminations. He’s also less likely to seek help because he is trying to live up to an impossible standard.
“It’s not like they’re doing it on purpose. It’s not their choice,” Noonan said.
2. “Just thing positively.”
Not only is this statement dismissive and cannot take the place of treatment, but it places blame on the person so what she hears is, “Get over it, you’re doing this to yourself.”
3. “Be grateful.”
This “Count your blessings”-type statement implies that the person is depressed because he cannot see what’s in front of him. Although the first episode of depression can be triggered by a life event, subsequent episodes are independent of what’s happening in the person’s life.
“There tends to be a lot of guilt and shame with having depression to begin with— this is just adding to it,” said Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist and author of “Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.”
4. “No one ever said life was going to be easy.”
This statement makes it sound as if the person who is suffering has control of what is going on his brain.
Since the person is already telling himself this, it reinforces the negative inner voice he hears.
“When a person feels dismissed about what they’re feeling or what they’re experiencing, it can be re-traumatizing to what they’re actually already going through,” Costine, who is also the author of “Lesbian Love Addiction: Understanding the Urge to Merge and How to Heal When Things Go Wrong,” said. “None of it’s actually accurate but it makes the depression worse.”
5. “Turn to God.”
Having a strong faith in a higher power can help people who suffer from depression cope and also respond better to treatment, a study in the Journal of Affective Disorders found.
Yet when you tell someone that they will get better if only they had a stronger belief in a higher power, it falls short because although that may be true, they also need help.
“Some people have healed their [diagnosis] from prayer, which is great [but] I wouldn’t suggest that be your only tactic,” Lombardo said.
6. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself.”
This statement makes the person feel as though he’s complaining or wants a pity party, “when actually what they’re trying to do is explain that they’re in pain,” Costine said.
7. “I know how you feel—I’ve been sad, too.”
Although it sounds empathic, this statement only minimizes the person’s pain.
“There’s a difference between sadness and clinical depression,” Lombardo said.
8. “Get over it.”
This is particularly hurtful because it implies that depression is the person’s fault and if she tries harder, she’ll pull through.
9. “You don’t look depressed.”
Sure, the person in your life may laugh and have a smile on his face, but that doesn’t mean he’s not in the throes of depression. What the person hears is, “I don’t believe you or you’re a fake,” which only makes the person who is already beating himself up feel worse.
“Happiness is not really the opposite of depressed,” Lombardo said.
10. “You need a hobby.”
This can be the same as “You need more friends, you need to exercise and you need to volunteer.” Although you may say this in hopes of getting the person out and about, which can certainly help, when a person has depression, they lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.
“Obviously the person knows that they’re not doing the things they had been doing in the past. They probably feel bad about it [and] this actually then just lays on more guilt,” Noonan said.
You can try to invite the person to participate in an activity with you but realize that they may not be able to participate at the same level they once did or they may not be interested at all.
“Eventually the motivation for doing it will follow,” she said.
Although there’s nothing you can say or do to cure your loved one from depression, you can encourage them and support them in a positive ways.
“Just provide empathy,” Costine said.
When you do, the person hears, “I hear you, I understand, I’m sorry you’re going through this.”