Depression can be a tough illness to understand, especially for those who have never experienced it themselves. Many people misunderstand the difference between clinical depression and feeling sad or blue. Approaching depression like the physiological illness it is is key to supporting a friend or colleague with depression. It’s also helpful to realize that medical treatment for depression often does not include medication, and professionals will know better how to react to someone in crisis. While clinical depression is a shifting, troublesome illness, it is something you can approach helpfully and supportively by avoiding some key missteps.
1. “You’re freaking out over nothing.”
Depression and mood disorders tend to involve peaks and valleys of extreme emotions. If you belittle the problems someone is experiencing, they’ll feel attacked and it may make the problem worse. While you might have a different perspective on their situation, that doesn’t change how strong their feelings are, which is the real problem. The chemical and electrical imbalances that cause mental health problems will still be present, even if the person struggling has no responsibilities.
Instead, try to be a sympathetic ear. Understand that this person’s mood will bottom out without any change in external factors. Identify with the person and let them know you understand that their health is often independent from outside problems. Most of all, let the person vent without judgement.
2. “It’s your own fault.”
Never tell a depressed person that they are struggling because of their own actions. Just like most other illnesses, people with depression have no say in whether or or not they are affected. Scientists suspect mood disorders are a result of both genetic predisposition and social factors, so people who struggle with depression did not choose to become sick and shouldn’t be treated as such.
In place of accusing a depressed person of not trying hard enough, acknowledge what a struggle it is to keep going when you are ill. Let the person know that you think they’re brave for sticking it out.
3. “It will pass.”
Never tell a person depression will pass on its own. Every illness will fluctuate with how serious it is, but illness generally doesn’t go away by itself. Medical treatment is necessary for most people struggling with depression. Even if someone is in a depressed state, but doesn’t struggle with clinical depression, it is always better to err on the side of caution. Additionally, many voices today condemn those who struggle with clinical mood disorders.
Be a supportive voice that lets your friend know what they deal with is a real problem. Try telling the person that depression is a real medical issue and must be difficult to deal with. Encourage them to seek medical treatment, even though others may be misinformed about how serious mental problems are.
4. “What about your lifestyle?”
Don’t look for a scapegoat for your friend’s medical problems. Sure, some actions have an effect on our mood, but a perfectly balanced life would never have the power to completely cure a pre-existing medical problem. In this way, poor lifestyle decisions are often an effect of clinical depression, rather than a cause. Making different choices in the future might help your friend with depression, but first, they need to recover enough to even make well-thought out decisions.
Rather than questioning the persons lifestyle, empathize, then highlight some things that may help them. Remind them that small decisions can aid their recovery. Offering to regularly go for a walk with them for example, is more encouraging than putting down their current decisions. Ultimately, remind them that small acts help recovery, but don’t take the place of medical treatment.
5. “Being depressed is better than … “
Minimizing a depressed person’s problems may seem like you’re giving them perspective, but in fact, it makes the depress person feel as though you think they are making up their illness. While a healthy person can step outside their perspective and change their attitude, clinical depression prevents normal thinking.
Instead of reminding the person what they don’t have to deal with, try to listen to their concerns and validate that depression is a troubling medical condition. Again, regardless of outside stress, mental problems will sometimes be worse than others. Simply showing concern for the person is much more helpful, and won’t make them feel like their condition is being minimized.
6. “Try thinking positive.”
Even though mental problems exist in the brain, a change in thought is not enough to overcome the problem. Studies show that mental health problems of all kinds, including depression, are caused by chemical and electrical imbalances in the brain. This means a depressed person’s brain does not have the capacity to dwell on positive thoughts and feelings. Telling someone with depression to think their way out of it is a bit like telling a diabetic to think happy thoughts, instead of giving them insulin.
As an alternative, try telling the person it must be incredibly grueling to lose the ability to think positive. Validating the illness of a person with depression is helpful because as they learn more about what causes their condition, they will be better equipped to manage it.
7. “Have you tried exercise?”
Much like positive thinking, exercise is not a cure for health problems, but rather, merely an action with positive effects on health. Exercise is helpful in providing some mood boosting chemicals to a person, but only if their brain is already mainly healthy. Someone with depression needs medical treatment, much of which does not involve medication, in order to get healthy enough to have energy to exercise.
In place of suggesting exercise as a cure, sympathize that it must be hard to have a condition that zaps your energy and motivation. Validate that this person’s condition has a massive effect on what they can accomplish, and new habits will not be enough to overcome it entirely. You can offer to accompany this person regularly for a quick walk or jog without suggesting that exercise is a cure all for their condition.
8. “Find a new job.”
Another seemingly helpful suggestion that actually isn’t very useful is suggesting that the depressed person get a new job. While work related pressures can certainly exacerbate mental health problems, a lack of stress does not cure serious medical problems.
Instead, show concern that work pressure isn’t making it easier for them to recover from depression. Validate their problems, which may include work stress, but still get to the root of the issue, which is physiological brain imbalances they can’t control.
9. “Count your blessings.”
Again, usually someone is trying to give the person with depression perspective when they say this, but ultimately, it can just make the person feel worse. Someone with depression isn’t just feeling down; they’re experiencing a state of illness. Though numbering the good things in life might help too accentuate the positive, it isn’t a whole solution for someone with medical problems. Not only that, the person has likely already tried many times to pull themselves out of depression with no success.
In lieu of suggesting that this person’s attitude is the problem, let them know that depression gets in the way of someone realizing the positive things in life. Empathize that it must be terrible to have your brain play these kinds of tricks on you and you realize that the person is trying their best to recover. Offer support, and let them know you will always be willing to lend an ear if they need to talk.
10. “Everyone has problems.”
By equating someone struggling with depression to someone with responsibilities, we misunderstand the root of depression. Someone with responsibilities is capable of overcoming problems with hard work. Unfortunately for all of us, hard work is not the only thing needed to overcome illness. When you compare other problems with depression, you run the risk of belittling a depressed person’s struggle.
A better way to approach this would be to remind the person that they’re not alone in struggling with mental health. Remind them that depression is a real, physiologically based illness that affects many. Because so many people are affected, many treatment options are available to help them recover, even though depression can feel like a tunnel with no end.
11. “Don’t feel sorry for yourself.”
This is also a misunderstanding of where depression comes from. Clinical depression is different from getting the blues, and requires much more than a change in perspective to turn around.
As an alternative to telling your depressed friend to avoid feeling sorry for themselves, acknowledge that they are likely not able to think beyond the curtain of depression. Identify that it must be difficult to be forced into such a state of being.
12. “I know how you feel.”
Although this phrase might seem helpful, saying you know how your depressed friend is feeling can actually be patronizing. Feeling depressed as a healthy individual is very different from clinical depression, so equating the two is harmful. Clinical depression is not a temporary state, and can sometimes last years. The person in question is struggling to feel any hope for months and months on end, which is something you really only experience if you’ve had clinical depression.
Instead, try telling your depressed friend that you’ve had periods where you felt depressed and it was awful, but that experience only begins to show you how serious their condition is. Empathize that a bigger, more complex version of your feelings must be truly punishing to get through. If you have struggled with clinical depression though, it is usually helpful to let them know that you really do know how they feel.
Featured photo credit: ryan melaugh via flickr.com