Anyone who has a loved one who struggles with depression probably knows the feeling of trying to help them, but having it seem like everything you say either falls on deaf ears or just makes things worse. I was actually unfamiliar with this feeling until about a year ago when a good friend of mine fell into a deep depression that was pretty uncharacteristic for them. I tried to be compassionate, to cheer them up, to tell them I understood, to give helpful suggestions, to do anything that would help them suffer a little bit less. I was at a loss and hated feeling so useless.
And then it hit me: I’ve been making people feel this way on a regular basis for years. As a matter of fact, you may be looking at this post because you want to understand me, myself, better. Understand that I never realized that my depression had this negative affect on others until recently. I had (have?) the frame of mind that I wasn’t important enough for this to happen. Who was (am?) I to think that people had any reason to be emotionally invested in my well-being?
I can’t say that most people with depression feel this way or similar to it, but I do know this- depression causes you to see the world in a jacked up way. (I only use such mild language in order to keep the blog PG. All of my unfiltered feelings towards mental illness include profanity.) This is why you might feel like you’re not “getting through”- you are dealing with somebody who has a totally different understanding of what is real.
I don’t know if your depressed love one (YDLO) is very much like me, but I would imagine they are at least a little bit like me, and I hope that what helps me will be able to help them. I am in no way trying to generalize the feelings, situation, or needs of people who suffer from depression. Everybody will respond differently to different things.
Don’t say: You don’t really have it that bad.
Instead, try: I wish I better understood what you are dealing with.
Never, ever, minimize emotional suffering. Is it possible that they are just a little bit insecure and fishing for attention? Sure. But it’s also possible (and more likely) that they are not exaggerating any of their feelings or being dishonest about their perceived circumstances. Being dismissive about what they are experiencing is likely to make them feel even more distant from the people and the experiences that have the potential to be relieving to them. A variation of what not to say is, “There are kids starving in Africa, y’know.” Comparison between others and ourselves rarely, if ever, promotes true joy.
Don’t say: Count your blessings!
Instead, try: That festival (or vacation or museum or amusement park or whatever) that you went to on Saturday, what was your favorite part?
I’m so tired of people telling me to count my blessings. It got old about 5 years ago (I remember when I started resenting it- I’m not make up an arbitrary time frame.) But I know that a happy heart is a grateful heart, and that recognizing the good in life can help YDLO tip their “outlook on life” scales back to balanced. The trick is to make it organic. When someone tells me to count my blessings, what I hear is, “I’m tired of talking to you, so I’m just going to say something that sounds good that I’ve probably never done myself.” But when I’m engaged in a natural discussion about the events of my life, I am able to think about and sort out positive things in a way that feels real.
Don’t say: You should go for a walk.
Instead, try: I’m going to go feed the ducks at the park after work. You’re on my way. Can I pick you up?
Would a walk make YDLO feel better? Could they benefit from the exercise and the Vitamin D? Probably, but they don’t care. Other things they don’t feel like doing are working in the garden, painting a picture, or going to look at the puppies in the pet shop. These are things that healthy-minded people enjoy, but people with depression often lose interest in such activities. You may as well tell them to go move a pile of bricks- they don’t feel like doing it, and they probably won’t do it. But you’re right- they do need to get out of the house. So make it easy for them. Pick them up, do something you know they enjoy. But (and this is a big but) don’t give the impression that you’re going out of your way for them. Just act like you were doing it anyway, and make it easy for them to join you.
Don’t say: You should read Proverbs 3:5-6.
Instead, try: I was feeling pretty bummed the other day and I came across a scripture that really helped me. Can I tell you about it?
I really don’t like it when people prescribe me scriptures to read that are supposed to make me feel better, because I usually already know them. I like the scriptures. I’m a gospel teacher. Trust me, I’ve made lists. But what I don’t know is the experience of others, and I could never be so cruel as to tell a person that they can’t share something that is important to them with me. This gives the opportunity for the Spirit to testify of things that my heart needs to hear. This principle applies with anything you may find inspirational (quotes, documentaries, books, works of art), and not just religious text.
Don’t say: Things will get better.
Instead, try: Can I tell you about something that happened to me? (That something being a time you experienced relief from a period of hopelessness or despair.)
I’ve become so calloused to people telling me that “things will get better”. Especially because things haven’t been getting better. This has less to do with depression and more to do with my situation in life (it is disappointing and I feel like the failure of the universe), but I still think it’s relevant. Just saying things will get better can sound very dismissive. Again, it’s one of those things that is fine and even helpful to say to a mentally healthy person, but YDLO isn’t mentally healthy. However, I like hearing about how people have overcome hopeless or desperate situations. This little bit of “evidence” can be just the hope I need to move forward.
Don’t say: Let me know if there’s something I can do to help.
Instead, try: What can I do to help? Anything at all.
When you feel like a crazy person, it’s hard to ask for help. It’s not as simple as, “Can we use your truck to pick up my new fridge?” It’s more like, “Can you help me try to fix everything that’s wrong about me that I don’t even fully understand myself?” It’s awkward to ask for help, because you don’t really know what you need, you just know that you’re not okay. It can really benefit YDLO to help them understand that they are not annoying you or inconveniencing you by asking for help. You can do this by requesting to help and making it as clear as you can that you really are helping because you want to, not because you feel obligated.
And please, please, please don’t ever say: Smile! Because, really:
Instead, try: Want to go get ice cream cones?
I saw the above meme on AdviceAnimals a few days ago. The Advice Mallard gives good but surprisingly necessary advice, and this might be the best advice he has ever given anyone. When you tell someone to “smile”, you may as well be saying, “Please, just deal with whatever is bothering you quietly and alone.” I have a naturally frowny face (my lips turn downwards) and I get told to “smile!” all the time. I understand that people think they’re doing me a favor, but they’re not. I get told to “smile!” even when I’m fine- even when I’m happy. When I’m happy it’s a bit annoying. When I’m depressed, it just…is awful. Instead, ask YDLO if they want an ice cream cone, because:
(Okay, almost always.)
The reason it is so hard to communicate with YDLO is that their perception of reality is off. What seems obvious to you might seem like a fantasy to them. I know this is frustrating, and I know that you don’t understand. You can’t understand. Even if you have experienced depression yourself, it affects everybody differently.
For those of you who have found success in communicating with YDLO, what has worked for you? What needed to change? Or, if you are the depressed love one, what do you wish the people in your life understood a little bit better about you?
I really hope this has been helpful. It’s not the most eloquent thing I’ve ever written, but I felt like I needed to write it because I don’t want people to have to suffer or feel alone.
I am so grateful for my friends and family who have been supportive of me even when I wasn’t particularly responsive or easy to understand. I was never trying to be difficult. As a matter of fact, I was doing the very best I could with what my mind gave me.
Even if you feel like you’re not “getting through”, please don’t stop trying. Chances are that one day YDLO will feel better, and you will both be so glad you stood by them when they get to that point.