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5 Things Not to Say to Someone With Depression (And Useful Alternatives to Try)

If you have depression or know someone who does, you’ll know that clinical depression (or non-situational depression) is not about being sad. That’s a misnomer. Depression isn’t “about” anything. It’s an illness, like any other, that affects people both mentally and physically. It’s not something you can “think yourself out of” any more than you can walk off a broken leg.

Yet, there are often underlying reasons for mental illness. Just like smoking can lead to lung cancer, depression can occur as a result of repressed feelings, stress, isolation, genetic predisposition and a whole load of other factors. But you can also wake up with it one day for no reason at all.

There is absolutely a nature versus nurture debate to be had about depression, but that’s another topic for another time.

Depression deserves compassion and care like any other illness. But many people don’t know what to say to someone who’s depressed. As a person very much on the frontline of depression, who’s been there for many years, here is what not to say, as well as some useful alternatives.

1. Don’t say: “It’ll be OK.”

It might not be OK, at least not for a while. A person deep in depression often can’t see beyond what’s right in front of them. Hearing “it’ll be OK” often translates to the depressed person as “I want you to be OK because right now, you’re a burden.” This might not be what you mean, of course, but it’s still an empty sentiment. It’s kind of like saying, “you’ll feel better in the morning.” It devalues what that person is feeling.

Say instead: “I’ll help you get through this. We’ll beat this together.”

The depressed person needs this kind of fighting spirit, but it’s often hard for them to muster. Depression breeds isolation; therefore, the opposite of depression is connection. A person who’s depressed needs to know you’re in this with them. You might not get what they’re going through, but you can still provide solidarity.

If all else fails, imagine how you would respond to a friend diagnosed with cancer. Then do that. One of the nicest things anyone ever did for me in an acute depressive episode was buying me a “get well soon” card. It recognized what I was feeling as a genuine illness.

2. Don’t say: “But you’ve got so much going for you!”

It doesn’t matter how great someone’s life appears on the outside. Depression doesn’t discriminate. Just look at some of the people who sadly died by suicide in recent years: Robin Williams, Chris Cornell and, most recently, Kate Spade. These people had fame, fortune and probably all the resources and help money could buy. Money (or lack thereof) can be a factor in someone’s mental health, but having it doesn’t make you exempt.

Say instead: “There are lots of people who love you, depressed or not.”

This is a tricky one because being reminded of the people who love them can make a person feel worse about their depression. Not only do they feel guilty about the way their mental health inevitably impacts others, but they might also hear it like a warning: “Don’t kill yourself! Think of the people who love you.”

Side note: Not everyone who’s depressed is suicidal. Some people with depression have never had a single suicidal thought, but this doesn’t make their struggle any less real. Feelings of suicide can often feel like a barometer to measure how depressed someone is, and this isn’t always helpful. I remember when I was seriously ill with postpartum depression after my son was born. I didn’t get out of bed for three months, and I spent every day sobbing into my nursing pillow in a dark room. After a while, I couldn’t be left on my own because my anxiety (an offshoot of depression for many) was so severe. When I eventually told my health visitor how I was feeling, she asked if I’d had thoughts of harming myself or my baby. I said no, and nothing more was said or followed up.

3. Don’t say: “Let me know if I can help.”

Sigh. If someone tells you they feel down, depressed, anxious or suicidal, then that is asking for help. Please acknowledge how much inner strength it takes for them to open up about how they feel and don’t wait for them to ask you to do something. Chances are they won’t. Depression often makes those living with it feel weak and codependent. They don’t want to have to ask for help, but that doesn’t mean they don’t need it.

Say instead: “I’m here.” (And mean it.)

If you say “I’m here for you” then stay true to your word. Don’t wait for your friend/loved one to call or text. Call or text them to ask how they are feeling. If they say they are fine, press them on it. Ask how their day has been. Ask how they feel. If you know they are having a hard time, send them a book or a bunch of flowers or a song that makes you think of them.

If you have the time and you live close, drop in and see them. Bring them meals if you know they’re having a hard time taking care of themselves. Take them to doctor’s appointments. There is so much support you can give both practically and emotionally to a person who’s depressed, and those small gestures make all the difference.

Don’t assume other people have it handled. Yes, the depressed person may have a loving spouse or family rallying around them, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t check in. Compassion is limitless, and someone who is depressed can never receive too much of it.

4. Don’t say: “You just need to try meditation/yoga/drinking more water/exercising.”

I know this sort of advice comes from a good place, but it sounds diminishing, patronizing and downright impossible for anyone in the grip of depression. Understand that while something might work for one person, that doesn’t mean it will work for everyone.

To put this into perspective, I go to weekly therapy, take antidepressants, exercise most days, eat vegan and meditate or do yoga every night. And I still dip in and out of major depression pretty regularly. If treating depression were as simple as just doing yoga or going for a walk, there wouldn’t be so many people struggling.

Say instead: “Wanna come to this yoga session/book club/exercise group with me?”

Of course, there are plenty of habits that help with depression, such as the things mentioned above. If you really think your friend or loved one would benefit from one of these activities, invite them to go with you. They will feel less like you’re preaching and more like you’re asking them to do something fun.

5. Don’t say: “It’s all in your head.”

The greatest misnomer about depression is that it’s a “mental” illness. Sure, it might present in the brain, but so do lots of other illnesses. The brain is the body, and mental and physical health are not mutually exclusive. To show you what I mean, here is a list of physical symptoms I experience when I’m depressed:

1. Fatigue.
2. Difficulty concentrating (brain fog).
3. Muscle aches.
4. Lack of appetite/increased appetite.
5. Insomnia.
6. Nausea.
7. Headaches.
8. Lack of motivation.
9. A general feeling of having “slowed right down.”

Say instead: Literally anything.

The idea that depression is all in the mind is outdated and shows a complete lack of understanding. Treat depression like you would any other illness in someone you love, and don’t leave them to go it alone.

Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash