Chances are high that you know someone or have known someone with depression. Have you ever wondered what’s best to say to that person? Or were you ever worried you might say the wrong thing?
With depression affecting more than 15 million American adults, or approximately 6.7 percent of the US population over the age of 18, it’s no wonder this question is posed so often. In fact, major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability in the US for people ages 15 to 44, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
So what types of things should you say to your friend, family member or colleague?
While there’s no “one size fits all” phrase, Sarah Katula, PhD., an advanced practice nurse in psychiatry at Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove, Ill., offers some advice for people trying to help.
First, Katula says it’s important to always follow through on the things you say. “If you say something like ‘I’m here for you,’ it’s important to do just that,” she explains. “What that means is checking in on your friend or family member consistently and asking if there is anything you can do to help. Tasks such as finding a good therapist or scheduling an appointment can be daunting for someone who is depressed, so having someone to lean on and knowing they are there for you can be extremely helpful.”
Another helpful phrase when trying to help someone with depression is ‘Let’s do something.’ Oftentimes, people with depression have trouble getting out of their own head and ruminate on negative experiences or situations. Katula says something as little as coming up with an activity to do together can help break up self-perpetuating cycle of bad thoughts. In addition, when people are active, endorphins are released, which can lead to more positive feelings.
Sometimes saying nothing is the best way to support someone who is depressed. “Sometimes all people need is a shoulder to cry on and someone to listen to what they are going through,” Katula says. “While you may feel like you should offer advice, every person’s experience with depression is different. Saying nothing and showing empathy can be exactly what your friend needs to not feel so alone.”
Finally, Katula says if you notice your friend or family member is severely depressed, you should always ask them if they feel like hurting themselves or even killing themselves. “It’s a myth that asking this question is suggestive,” she says. “If a depressed person shares that they do have thoughts of suicide (especially if they have had thoughts of how they would end their life), they should be brought to an emergency room.”
While there is no perfect thing to say, there are some things better left unsaid.
Katula says a couple common offenders include:
- “What happened? Did someone die/get hurt/did you get fired?” When someone is depressed, there often isn’t a reason for their sadness. When people try to pinpoint a reason for their “feeling down,” it can often make them feel like there needs to be a reason behind their sadness and make them feel self-conscious.
- “Don’t you want to feel better?” This type of statement attributes blame to the depressed individual and can make them feel judged and as if they aren’t trying hard enough. “Depressed individuals want to feel better, but it can be a difficult journey” says Katula. “Statements like this add to an already long list of things an individual feels they can’t help.”
- “I was depressed once.” It’s human nature to want to relate one’s own experiences to what someone else is going through, but feeling sad or down once in a while is not the same as clinical depression. However, if you have been diagnosed with clinical depression, sharing positive experiences and tips may be helpful in many ways.
“’Never give up’ is my best advice,” says Katula. “Depressed people become more and more isolated, and being isolated can ‘feed’ the depression. Caring for people with depression can often be difficult for family members and friends. Taking care of yourself can help the caregiver continue to support and care for the depressed person.”
Take this Depression Risk Assessment to find out if you’re at higher risk of developing depression.