Many people know that I have suffered from depression related to PTSD since I was 13 years old. It’s not something I spend much time thinking about – I’ve taken antidepressants for years and I generally feel okay – but it’s definitely a part of my life and likely always will be.
Recently, it occurred to me that I was struggling to make it through the day and complete even the simplest of tasks. Something as easy as making a phone call could paralyze me for hours. I alternated between staying awake for days on end and sleeping 12+ hours at a time. I stopped writing blog posts and let myself become completely overwhelmed by all the stressful things in my life. Last week I finally had to admit to myself that my depressive symptoms were back, regardless of the fact that I don’t really feel depressed.
As much as I didn’t want to, it was time to call my doctor. I’ve taken every antidepressant ever invented, and while Zoloft has worked wonders for me for the past 7-8 years, I was at the max dose and it was time to try something different. Now that I’ve started a new medication, I’m in that mode where the fog is lifting and I’m finally starting to feel human again.
One thing that annoys me most about depression is the feeling that I’m not supposed to talk about it. Even though I’m a licensed therapist, even though it’s the 21st century, mental illness is still one of those things that people tend to keep to themselves. And while I understand that feeling of being “too weak” to cope with everyday life (because I feel that way all the time), the truth is that depression has nothing to do with weakness. But people who have never experienced it don’t know that because no one talks about it. And the cycle goes on and on…
Anyway, I talked to a friend over the weekend who knows very little about depression, and she mentioned that she never knows what to say to depressed friends or loved ones – she’s always worried about hurting their feelings or making things worse. So I decided to make a list of the most obnoxious and/or clueless things people have said to me, along with some suggestions of things they could have said instead. Hopefully this will help you, because even if you don’t suffer from depression, I can guarantee you know someone who does (whether or not they’re comfortable enough to admit it).
5 Things You Should Never Say to a Depressed Person
1. Don’t ask, “Why are you so sad?”
Depression isn’t just sadness and it doesn’t always have a direct cause. That’s like asking someone in a wheelchair why they can’t walk – they just can’t.
I think people mean well when they ask questions like this, but the truth is, you can’t “logic” your way out of depression. You can’t sit down and make a list of pros and cons, then make a decision not to feel depressed. It just doesn’t work that way. There’s no point in wondering about the why because it’s not going to make a difference. When someone tells you they’re depressed, they don’t expect you to find a magic solution; they just want your support.
Say this instead: “I’m sorry you’re having a hard time. I’m here for you and I’ll be glad to listen.”
2. Don’t say, “I know exactly how you feel.”
Depression can happen to anyone, but that doesn’t mean it always happens in the same way or for the same reasons. Even if your situation was very similar, it’s insulting to assume that you know what’s going through another person’s head.
Additionally, don’t make it about you! People love to tell me they know how I feel, followed by a long, drawn out story about their own experiences. Normally that wouldn’t bother me, but when I’ve reached a low point, I don’t have the energy to take on someone else’s problems. That actually makes me feel worse because I feel pressured to offer comfort at a time when I’m the one in need of help!
Say this instead: “I can imagine how difficult [situation] must be for you. I’m really sorry this is happening.”
3. Don’t say, “But think of all the good things in your life!”
By all measures, my life is pretty great. I am self-employed and love what I do, I have an awesome son who I love dearly, my bills are paid, I have support from friends and family… I could keep going. However, depression doesn’t care that I have all those things. In fact, my depression tells me that I don’t deserve them, or that I only have them because people don’t know the “real” me, or that all the people in my life secretly hate me.
In other words, it’s not helpful for a depressed person to think about the positives in his (or her) life because the illness will not allow him to see those things for what they are. Depression can also cause immense guilt – feelings like, “I have all these awesome things and I can’t even appreciate them! What’s wrong with me?” It’s natural to want to remind someone that life isn’t all bad, but it can hurt more than it helps.
Say this instead: “I love you and can’t wait to see you kick depression’s sorry ass! I’m here for you no matter what.”
4. Don’t say, “Let me know if I can help/if you need to talk.”
Don’t get me wrong – it’s incredibly nice for someone to offer to listen or to help. But when I’m depressed, I hear that as an empty offer. She doesn’t really want to help; she’s just trying to escape the conversation without looking like a jerk. He’s only saying that because he thinks he has to.
If you really want to help a depressed person, don’t leave the burden of asking for help on her – she’s probably not able to handle it. It requires a lot of courage to say out loud, “I can’t do this on my own,” and the depression is likely telling the person it would be pointless anyway. If you’re going to offer something, do it in a concrete way that doesn’t force the person to ask for it.
Say this instead: “I know you’re stressed about being behind on laundry (or whatever the case may be). I’m coming over tomorrow to help you wash clothes because I want you to feel less overwhelmed.” And then do it no matter how much the person protests, assuming you’re close enough to him to barge into his house when everything is in a state of utter chaos. Or just send a card – it would mean a lot.
5. Don’t say, “I don’t believe in therapy/medication. I just ___ when I’m depressed.”
Oh, you don’t “believe in” the two research-proven treatment methods for depression? And it makes you feel better to paint a picture or sing Kumbaya or volunteer at the humane society? Well, isn’t that nice. Too bad those things do literally NOTHING to help me.
Never, ever discourage someone from seeking treatment for depression. I don’t care what works or doesn’t work for you personally, or what medicines you tried that didn’t agree with you. The fact is, antidepressants and therapy are helpful for a LOT of people. That doesn’t mean they’re the only things that work or that it doesn’t take trial and error to find the best combo, but I can personally attest to the benefits, both as a patient and as a former treatment provider.
We live in a society that shuns taking pills or seeing a professional to deal with mental illness. Yet we would never tell someone to “walk off” a broken leg or “get out more” to cure cancer. Depression causes measurable, observable changes to the brain’s chemical makeup – it isn’t something people just invent because they feel like it. If someone is brave enough to buck tradition and get help and you tell them not to, you are a jerkface asshole of the highest order.
Say this instead: “I really hope [method of treatment, traditional or not] works for you. I’m so glad you’re taking steps to battle your depression and get better.”
Depression affects around 1 in 10 American adults. Whether or not you ever experience it, it’s important to know what to say when you encounter someone who does. If you’ve dealt with depression before, what other things have people said that were hurtful or annoying? What could they have said instead?