14 Things to Never Say to Someone with Depression
Even if you have the best of intentions, these tidbits of advice may hurt someone with depression more than they heal.
Don’t tell them to shake it off
Why it’s harmful: When you tell someone to just shake off their depression, you trivialize their condition and deny their pain, according to Debbie Plotnick, the vice president for mental health and systems advocacy at Mental Health America, in Alexandria, VA. For people with depression, “cheering up” is not a simple task, and it’s important to recognize that they probably wish they could, too.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Is there anything I can do to help?”
Don’t downplay their condition
Why it’s harmful: Telling someone that the pain they’re feeling is “all in their head” diminishes the fact that depression is a serious health condition, and reduces it to something that can be fixed just by changing their thinking habits. “If someone is feeling unwell in some way, it is within their person, not just their head,” Plotnick explains.
What to say instead: “I will try my best to understand.”
Don’t be dismissive
Why it’s harmful: People with depression are aware that life isn’t fair, says Theresa Nguyen, vice president of policy and programs at Mental Health America, in Alexandria, VA. Reminding them of this fact doesn’t help them cope with their illness.
What to say instead: “I can see that you’re struggling, and I really admire/respect you for pushing through this.”
Don’t make comparisons
Why it’s harmful: As true as this might be, it doesn’t change the fact that the person you’re talking to is still going through an emotionally draining time. Telling someone with depression that some other people have it worse will only make them feel ashamed of their feelings, Plotnick says.
What to say instead: “What you’re going through is real, and I think that almost anyone in your situation would feel that way.”
Don’t offer false cheer
Why it’s harmful: What might feel like a beautiful day to you could be a much different picture for someone with depression, who may have difficulty seeing the same joy you recognize in everyday life. Implying that the person should feel happy ignores their condition and may make them feel guilty for their depression, Plotnick says.
What to say instead: “Want to go on a walk through the park today?” Or “Want to grab a cup of coffee today?” If the person says they’d prefer to stay home, it’s reasonable to ask, “Can I come and keep you company?”
Don’t give pat advice
Why it’s harmful: It’s true that isolating yourself can increase your risk of feeling depressed, but everyone has their own way of dealing with their depression, and what works for some may not be helpful for others. Plotnick says it’s also generally best to avoid “should” statements; you might feel like you’re offering a helpful solution, but telling people with depression what they need to do in order to feel better isn’t always productive.
What to say instead: “Would you like to go for a walk with me?”
Don’t tell them how to cope
Why it’s harmful: Depression is a serious health issue, and simply telling someone to pretend it doesn’t exist isn’t going to cure them of their condition. According to Ken Duckworth, MD, the medical director for the National Alliance on Mental Health in Boston, MA, telling someone to “get over” their depression lacks compassion and will likely make the person feel misunderstood.
What to say instead: “How can I support you during this difficult time?”
Don’t talk about how they look or act
Why it’s harmful: As is the case with any medical condition, there is no one specific way to look depressed. Not everyone will be a sobbing mess or unable to get out of bed in the morning. “People who are depressed spend a lot of time trying not to look depressed,” Nguyen says. “It takes a long time for you to get to the point where you stop showering.” Find out why nicer people are more prone to depression.
What to say instead: “Tell me more about what’s going on. Help me understand.”
Don’t be judgmental
Why it’s harmful: Plotnick says this is one of the most judgmental things you could say to someone battling depression. Their symptoms may not be visible to you on the outside, but that doesn’t mean the struggle they’re facing internally isn’t real. Try understanding the seriousness of their condition, and instead ask how you can support them.
What to do instead: Offer to bring them some soup or a hot dish for dinner, as you would do for a friend dealing with any other health condition.
Don’t talk about “bad days”
Why it’s harmful: It’s true—everyone does have bad days. However, that doesn’t mean you need to point it out to someone with depression, who may be struggling on a day-to-day basis. This statement reduces their serious health condition to a “bad day” and implies that it’s something they’ll get over quickly and easily, Plotnick says.
What to say instead: “I’m sorry that you’re having a bad day. I’d like to help.”
Don’t talk about smiling or happiness
Why it’s harmful: For someone with depression, finding energy to smile when they’re hurting inside can be exhausting and damaging, Plotnick says. They may be going through some difficult things that you are unaware of, so it’s best to communicate with them in the least assuming way possible.
What to say instead: “Your feelings are valid.”
Don’t downplay the severity
Why it’s harmful: Statements like this play down the severity of a depressed person’s condition and might make them feel guilty for something they can’t control. “When I hear this statement, it diminishes the fact that depression is a real problem and puts a personal blame and a negative spin on what already feels awful,” Nguyen says.
What to say instead: “What can I do to help you feel better?”
Hesitant to seek professional help? Here are the signs you could use the help of a therapist.
Don’t make it about you
Why it’s harmful: Blaming someone with depression for making you sad can worsen their condition by making them feel even more ashamed and humiliated than they already do, Dr. Duckworth says. Instead, you should show love and support the person to help them get back to the state they’d like to be in.
What to say instead: “I’m here for you.”
Seeking professional help? Don’t miss these tips on how to get the most out of therapy.
Don’t talk about how great their life is
Why it’s harmful: As Plotnick explains, depression is not simply the opposite of happiness, and it doesn’t matter what you do or do not have. You could have all the money, friends, and career opportunities in the world, but that doesn’t wipe away a mental illness.
What to say instead: “I understand that you are hurting. I have your back.”
Next, learn to spot the telltale signs of high-functioning depression.