If you’ve never experienced depression, knowing what to say to a loved one who’s struggling can feel like a minefield. You want to be supportive, of course, but you have no idea where to begin (and you might feel so uncomfortable that you just avoid the conversation altogether). That’s why we checked in with Shanna Dugan, LPC at Connections Wellness Group, for seven things you should never say to someone with depression--along with some suggestions for what to go with instead.
7 Things You Should Never Say to Someone with Depression
1. “I’ll just give you some space.”
People struggling with depression are typically withdrawn and experiencing heightened levels of loneliness and isolation, Dugan points out. That doesn’t mean you should the best thing to do is leave them alone. “Support systems are difficult to identify for those struggling with depression, and hearing that someone wants to separate themselves as a result of an individual’s depression can be defeating and frightening,” Dugan notes. “Even if you are unsure how to support someone struggling with depression, don’t run away from them. Sit with them, listen to them and show them they matter to you.” Even a simple call or text to let them know you’re in their corner and eager to help in any way possible can make all the difference.
2. “You don’t look depressed.”
Unlike certain physical illnesses, a mental illness like depression doesn’t have a ‘look.’ Just because someone doesn’t look like they’re struggling doesn’t mean they’re not. “It’s incredibly important to remember that the outside does not always match the inside,” Dugan reminds us. “Depression is not something that can just be looked at and visibly identified in an individual. Many people fighting depression are putting on a content and happy facade for others, in order to not burden those around them or gain unwanted attention.” Dugan tells us that statements like this can diminish the gravity of depression for a person deep in the throes of it. Try to avoid assumptions about what depression looks like.
3. “It could be worse.”
No thank you, captain obvious. Though you’re trying to make them feel better, reminding them that they could be in a way worse situation is dismissive. “For a person battling depression, even talking to someone about it is an incredible feat, and takes more energy and bravery than they even believe they have within themselves,” Dugan says. “Making statements that minimize the battle they are fighting will lead the person to feel unsafe when opening up about their depression.” As this person’s friend or family member, it’s important to allow them to feel heard and understood when they are expressing what they’re feeling. Even if you can think of ten things off the top of your head that would make their situation worse, keep those to yourself.
4. “It will get better.”
“When someone is struggling with depression, they typically cannot see the ‘light at the end of the tunnel,’” Dugan tells us. “Statements like these can trigger hopelessness, helplessness and defeat when they are unable to find their way out of the dark hole they are currently residing in.” Saying things like this also puts a kind of pressure on a person to get better, and they might feel guilty or ashamed if they’re not simply able to look at the bright side. “Reframe your statements to ones that allow the person to know you understand the pain and difficulty they are experiencing, but realize it will take time to get to a better place,” Dugan says.
5. “You think that’s bad, but so-and-so had it way worse.”
Dugan says that comparing levels of depression is like comparing apples to oranges. “One should never use statements that compare the pain and struggle that one is experiencing to someone else’s,” she urges. “The reality of the severity of depression is based on perception and personal circumstances, resources and history. Claims like these are invalidating and can demonstrate a lack of value of the person’s view of the world and situation.” Keep in mind that every person is different and you really have no way of knowing what someone’s going through.
6. “Cheer up!”
If only it were this easy, right? Dugan reiterates, “Depression does not disappear with the flip of a switch, nor do happy and cheerful thoughts simply eliminate depressive symptoms.” She adds depression is a complex and multi-faceted struggle. When you tell someone to ‘just cheer up’ and they can’t, it can make them feel like they’ve failed.
7. “You wouldn’t be depressed if you would just……”
“Depression doesn’t occur due to a lack of action, but also won’t go away with just one action,” Dugan stresses. “Oversimplifying depression through statements similar to this will place blame on the individual and can bring about guilt and shame.” While depression can be related to circumstances, there’s also a genetic component, so it’s not something that can simply be corrected based on actions. Dugan tell us, “If you know of someone who is struggling with depression, it’s recommended to refer the patient to a medical or mental health professional for appropriate treatment.”