6 Things You Should Say to Someone Who Has Depression
We’ve all seen the lists explaining what not to say to someone with depression; never say, “Cheer up!” or “Just snap out of it!”, for example, because doing so just makes things worse for the afflicted individual, and it becomes painfully obvious you don’t understand that depression isn’t just sadness, it’s a disease. So what should you say to someone having a severe depressive episode or an anxiety attack? Here’s a list of suggestions culled from my own near-lifelong battle with this insidious disease.
1. “I’m here for you.”
It’s such a simple phrase but one often forgotten because people are too busy trying to fix what’s wrong with you when you have depression. When you’re having a depressive episode, it’s like you’re in an impenetrable cocoon. Logic doesn’t work because irrationality is running your brain. You’re also often unresponsive, too busy being stuck in your own head. Telling a depressed person you’re there for them is positive, caring and non-judgmental; any sort of phrase such as, “Why can’t you just be happy?” implies judgment, and that only makes things worse since depressed people are already negatively judging themselves.
2. “Do you want to cry? Do you want to talk? Either is OK. I’m ready whenever you are.”
Again, you’re showing non-judgmental compassion above all else. Maybe the depressed person needs to cry things out. It might not work all of the time, especially since sometimes you have no idea why you’re crying when you’re depressed, but by offering the person the opportunity you’re opening yourself up to the depressed person’s potential needs. The same applies for talking. Many times, especially in my case, depressed people dislike talking about things, but by asking someone if they’re ready to talk you’re showing your openness and kindness. Sometimes talking does help because you’re eventually able to see how you spiraled out of control. Sometimes it doesn’t. What’s important is that you, as a man or woman not suffering from the disease, understand that the depressed person might not be ready, but you are whenever the time is right.
3. “I know you have a disease, and I can’t understand how deeply it affects you, but I want to understand.”
Depression is like any other disease or disorder in that you cannot fathom it until you’ve experienced it. I have no idea what it’s like to have cancer. I have no idea what it’s like to have Tourette syndrome. By acknowledging that you’ve never been in the depressed person’s shoes and that you cannot possibly understand what they’re going through, you might be able to make a chink in the armor. It’s a hard thing to do because we always want to say, “I completely understand how you feel” when someone’s in pain, but it’s just not the truth. Admitting that you don’t know is enormous because you don’t come off exasperated or condescending. Perhaps the depressed person will open up a bit. I know I did when people finally understood how little control I had over my thoughts and emotions.
4. “Call me day or night, especially if you’re thinking of harming yourself!”
Suicidal ideation can occur in depressed people at any moment. One second you’re thinking about eating Goldfish crackers, the next you’re thinking about downing a bottle of pills. The depressed person might not ever act on such thoughts, but the thoughts are still terrifying, and knowing there’s someone out there you can speak to at any moment is terrific reassurance. You become about as trustworthy as possible to a person who trusts nothing and no one. It’s comforting to know there are people to turn to at any moment who will help talk you down. Once I was terrified by suicidal ideation, so I posted on a dad bloggers website and immediately a person I barely knew instant messaged me and wrote, “Give me your phone number!” I did, and he spent the next hour talking me off the proverbial bridge, just calming me down. If you know someone who’s depressed, make sure to let them know they have access to you whenever necessary.
5. “Breathe. In through the nose, out through the mouth.”
One of the first things that happens when you start to spiral or have an anxiety attack is you forget to breathe, which leads to hyperventilating, which in turn leads to strengthening the episode or attack. Getting people to concentrate on their breathing sometimes helps clear their minds of whatever sent them down the rabbit hole, and often prevents a full on panic attack.
6.“Would you like a hug?”
Sometimes the depressed person will decline (and sometimes I do as well), but this is the most significant one for me because I grew up in a family that lacked physical affection. Simple physical contact via hugging can have tremendous effects. A hug can ground a person going through a depressed episode or an anxiety attack. The person can concentrate on the physical feel of the hug and the warmth behind it instead of his or her roiling mind. It helps them feel secure in a world that’s falling apart inside their head. It’s important that you ask if the person would like a hug because you’re giving the depressed person an option instead of being forceful. Hugs, even to depressed people, are beautiful.
I’ve been battling depression for over 30 years, but most significantly since I had my second breakdown approximately five years ago. These are the thoughts and phrases that have had the most impact on me. You must remember that everyone is different. Some people go deeper than others. Some people with depression never have suicidal ideation. Some don’t want to be touched. Regardless, if you know someone with this disease, try these out and see if they work. Remember not to judge, not to act condescending, not to be forceful, and know that depression is not sadness. It’s a real disease that corrodes the mind.
If you’ve experienced depression, what other phrases have worked for you? What would you like for people to say to you when you’re stuck in a depressive episode?
If you or someone you know needs help, see our suicide prevention resources.
If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.