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Why These 6 Common Phrases Said to Those With Depression Are Harmful

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“It’s mind over matter!”
“You just have to think positive!”
“Maybe if you found faith…”
“You’re making excuses to be miserable!”
“What do you have to be depressed about?”
“Life is good! Stop moping!”

These words seem helpful, positive, friendly even, but if you’ve ever said them to someone with depression they hurt more than you could ever know. Depression is not a state of mind; it’s not a constant desire to be miserable or a cry for attention. It’s not always the result of a bad life or traumatic event either. Depression, for some of us, is a constant battle. I’ve struggled with my depression (I call her Deborah) for as long as I can remember and I’ve heard it all in the few years since I started actively seeking treatment. If you’ve said these words, chances are you really do love the person you’re saying them to. Unfortunately, chances are also that you don’t live with depression and don’t understand what’s going on with your loved one and why your words are so painful. This article is my attempt to remedy that, and hopefully it will help you find a bridge to better communicate with those who have depression.

First things first — depression is different for everyone. There is no one cause and no one way to deal. Some people have situational depression. It’s very real and intense when something happens, like a breakup or financial stress. When things are stable, their depression retreats to hibernate. This kind of depression is very valid and every bit as difficult to have as any other.

Others, like me, have a clinical depression caused by things being “out of whack” in our bodies and brains. This kind of depression is most commonly treated with medication but the road to finding the right dosage and medication is long and difficult. It can take years.

A good way to open up that bridge is to start by asking your loved one if they want to talk about their depression at all. Make sure to tell them you will keep an open mind and most importantly do so. Listen; don’t talk, don’t try to relate or be their therapist or give them advice. Just listen for a while. Sometimes it helps just to know someone is really hearing you.

Now, let’s tackle some of those problematic phrases. I’ll try to explain why they hurt and how you can approach the situation differently. Let’s start with one my mother liked to tell us a lot: ”It’s mind over matter!” This was often followed by, “Just think positive!”

Depression isn’t being sad all the time. It’s much more complex than that. Depression is the feeling of being unable to lift out of darkness. It’s the feeling of being numb, even when doing things you’d normally enjoy or be passionate about … and numb is still better than the usual feelings of the day. It’s not mind over matter because in many cases it’s not wholly psychological at all. Try to sit on the couch and force your eyes to stay open instead of blinking. That’s what trying to fight depression with “positive thinking” is. Instead of saying “it’s mind over matter,” try saying “how’s it going today?” or “what can we do that would help today?” Instead of “just think positive,” say “I’ve got your back.” Hearing you’re behind them and supporting them will make a world of difference, even if they don’t show it. They aren’t instantly going to be better, but knowing they have your love and support will help them feel a little more warmth that day.

I live in the South. It’s a very religious area. I respect all religions and have many loved ones who are religious. However, I am not. Here, being told that faith is the answer to my depression is all too common. Aside from that statement, being rather rude if you know someone isn’t religious it’s also very unhelpful and comes off as condescending. You should never suggest to someone that their mental illness can be fixed by finding religion. Instead, ask if they are comfortable with you talking about your faith. If they say yes try to tell them things you’ve learned from your faith that help you. For example, “When I’m feeling down, I remember a story from the Bible that cheers me up,” or “My pastor told a funny joke at church yesterday, would you like to hear it?” If they are very open-minded you could offer to take them with you to a church function or church. “Would you like to come with me to a church potluck? Everyone is welcome!” or “I know you aren’t religious but if you ever want to come with me to church you’re welcome to.” These solutions are tricky at best and should never be applied if you aren’t very close with the person. Someone like me would likely deny your requests to speak about faith or go to church, but knowing you love them enough to share a big part of your life can be helpful.

“You’re making excuses to be miserable” is often said when someone is frustrated by a loved one’s depression. It’s angry and hurtful, but understandable if the person saying it has no experience with mental illness. This is something you should never say. Do you truly believe anyone wants to be unhappy? Trust me, we don’t. There really is no comparable replacement for this statement because it is so aggressive and blatantly cruel. However, some things you can say instead are “Would you like to talk about things you’ve tried?” or “Do you need help researching treatments you may not have heard about?” The person may say no but at least they’ll feel like you’re not dismissing their illness and that you’re wanting to help.

The last two go hand in hand: “What do you have to be depressed about,” and “Life is good, stop moping” are very commonly used when people don’t understand that depression is relative. The richest man in the world can be more miserable than the poorest, even if he’s more comfortable. Even when you have a roof over your head, food in your belly and a family who loves you, depression is there. Telling someone they have no reason to be depressed just makes them feel worse. Often we already feel worthless, selfish or like we’re being stupid for being depressed when there’s nothing inherently wrong in our lives. To say that just makes those feelings magnified tenfold. Depression doesn’t choose who and where to strike. It’s not a sentient being with meticulous planning that hits people who deserve it. It’s a real illness with physiological origins as well as psychological. Your body doesn’t care if your life is good.

Instead of those words, try “Would you like to do something you enjoy today?” or “How can I help today?” Remember that sometimes the thing that makes us feel better is just to curl up and sleep, or stay at home doing nothing. That’s OK! Don’t force someone with depression out of their comfort zone during a bad day. Gently persuade them, and if they say no, accept that. Try instead to offer your company and support inside their comfort zone. “If you don’t want to leave, perhaps I can make some lunch and we can watch a movie on Netflix?” or “Would you like me to stay and keep you company?” Knowing you’re willing to stand beside them and spend time with them will likely help make them feel better. Often those with depression feel as though our illness is driving people we love away: like we’re downers who they don’t want to be around. Letting them know you still want to spend time with them can be a very positive experience.

These are just a few of the common phrases that get thrown, whether with malice or misunderstanding, at those with depression. It’s a constant battle and a constant pressure. Sometimes loved ones just don’t understand. Hopefully, by eliminating these harmful phrases in favor of more support-filled and compassionate ones, communication can be a two-way street between those struggling with depression and those who love them.

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Unsplash photo via Caleb George

Originally published: May 1, 2017
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