Depression is real. It’s challenging to fully understand what being depressed is like for someone else. At the same time, we want to help our loved ones as best we’re able. And we want to say the right things. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on “what not to say.”
Snap out of it
Thinking someone has the ability to immediately “snap out of” (or insert other invalidating expressions of boot strapping) depression is a bit naïve. Worse yet, comments such as this tend to belittle our loved ones. They can increase feelings of despair and guilt. Keep in mind that depression is a complex experience that willpower alone rarely provides a remedy.
Similarly, the age old adages of "cheer up" or "look on the bright side" oversimplify the profound emotional and psychological turmoil someone with depression is experiencing. Depression is not a choice, and – knowing this – simply encouraging a depressed person to suppress their emotions can worsen their condition.
Time heals all wounds
Time is oftentimes an important part of the healing process … but clichés like this are not very helpful. They have a tendency to make the recipient feel unheard or misunderstood. They also tend to make our loved one feel minimized. Depression can be a long-term struggle and genuine empathy and support are required. It takes as long as it takes to explore what causes depression and to learn new ways of engaging with life that provide more joy and meaning.
Others have it much worse
Comparing situations is counterproductive at best. It invalidates their feelings, implies that their pain is being blown out of proportion, and that their suffering is unwarranted. The pain that emanates from depression is unique and needs to be acknowledged without judgment or comparison.
You know what you should do?
Ah, good ol’ unsolicited advice. "You should exercise more.” "You need to get out.” We’re just trying to help, but we need to keep in mind that depression can sap a person's motivation and energy. It can be very difficult for them to take such steps at the current time. Instead, it's much more helpful to ask how you can help. A sincere “Is there anything that I can do today to be of assistance?” can go a long way. And very gently asking if you can assist with their seeking professional help may be the most important thing you can do at all.
Dr. Wayne Bullock is an experienced licensed counselor in Washington D.C. specializing in the needs of gay men and the LGBTQ community. Wayne's expertise includes helping those affected by anxiety, depression, and trauma.