Conveying concern to someone living with depression can be challenging. Here are a few tips on how to communicate concern and love.
As a caregiver, friend or ally you may feel like you’re walking on eggshells around a loved one living with depression. You may be worried that something you say could sound patronizing in nature and upset them. It’s possible that you feel helpless about this—instead of reducing their emotional distress you may appear to have added to it.
Often, we say things that we have been conditioned to believe is the helpful, or appropriate thing to say in a situation. Even though this comes from a space of good intent it might not be cognizant of what the other person is going through. Here’s a brief list of what we may often be saying to a person living with depression, and what is a better alternative to it.
Avoid trivializing a person’s distress
“Everyone has problems.”
"That’s nothing, you should hear what happened to me."
Don’t use phrases and language that downplay how the other person is feeling. Try to avoid comparing their situation to that of someone else’s or even your own—every person’s experience of a situation is unique, to make a comparison wouldn’t be fair or accurate. Saying “Everyone faces this problem,” does not change the fact that the distress experienced is real. Communication like this might make a person feel as if their emotions are not valid, or that you are not there for them at a time when they need you around. Instead, acknowledge that they are facing challenges that are in fact causing them significant distress:
“I’m sorry you are going through a rough time.”
“I can see how painful this is for you.”
Don’t force them to control their emotions, and not express how they’re feeling
“Don’t feel bad, cheer up!”
Being tearful and feeling emotional are natural symptoms of depression. Don’t urge someone to suppress emotions that are only natural at a time like this. Forcing them to hide how they truly feel can make them feel like they are doing something wrong, or that they’re doing something that is shameful in nature. In your behavior and words, offer a safe space for them to be able to express themselves freely, without censure.
“It’s okay to feel bad.”
“Crying is not a sign of weakness, it might help you feel a little better.””
Don’t urge someone to overcome their distress quickly
“Go out and meet some people!”
“You just need to get out of bed and exercise!”
Depression affects a person’s motivation and energy levels—if they were feeling up to it, they would go out and meet people, or exercise, but they’re not in the space to do so at the moment. Allow them the freedom and space to process their pain at their own pace. Let them know that you’re around if they need you for something—like making them a good meal, helping out with cleaning their living area, or running an errand for them.
“I can come over and spend some time with you if you like, we don’t have to talk, I can just keep you company.”
“Do you need me to do something for you? Any way I can be of help right now?”
Avoid tough love
"Do you even want to get better? Just snap out of it!”
“If you don’t stop being like this, I won’t be able to talk to you anymore.”
Recovery takes time, and they need your support and patience more than anything. Don’t give them ultimatums or coerce them to bounce back quickly. Instead, share that their distress is worries you, in a way that is helpful to them:
“I am worried about you. Is there anything I can do to help?”
“I understand that you are struggling, would you like some company? We don’t have to talk.”
Replace condescending/patronizing remarks with genuine encouragement
“Oh look who’s up early!”
“Wow, someone finally cleaned their room, eh?”
Someone living with depression may find it hard to complete activities of daily living—like waking up on time, keeping their living area clean, cooking their own meals, running errands. With some effort, they might be able to accomplish these sometimes. On these occasions, instead of being condescending or sarcastic, it is constructive to encourage or compliment them. This also lets them know that you are aware of the effort they are making.
“Hey, nice to see you woke up early. Would you like to get breakfast?”
“Your room looks really nice. It must have taken you some time to do it!”
Don’t force them to communicate with you
“Why aren’t you talking to me?”
“If you don’t tell me what’s wrong, how can I help you?”
People living with depression may go into non-communicative spells when they find it hard to articulate their thoughts or talk about how they’re feeling; they may also not be ready to discuss what is bothering them. In these situations, don’t force them to talk to you. Instead, let them know that you are there to listen when they are ready to talk and offer your company in silence.
“I understand you don’t feel like talking. We can just spend some time in silence if you’d like?”
“You don’t seem to want to talk about it. That’s okay but know that when you are ready, I am here for you.”
Understand that compliments could backfire
“You are stronger than this.”
“I know you will beat this soon.”
You may feel like offering a compliment and reassuring your loved one that they will get out of this soon is a nice gesture. But, they may already be battling thoughts of feeling unloved or worthless, and the gesture could lead them to believe that they are not trying hard enough; or make them feel like they are letting you down. Instead, you could offer to listen to their struggles or gently suggest professional help.
“I’ve never seen you like this. Would you like to talk about it?”
“You seem to be struggling quite a bit. Do you want to talk to someone about it? I could come with you.”
Treat them like you did before they were depressed. They may be in a slump but they are not their depression—they are still the same person who you loved and acknowledged before. Non-verbal communication can go a long way in letting them know that you are there for them. Offer a hug or a pat on the back to let them know they have your support.
It is natural to want to know what is troubling your loved one, and to feel helpless when you don’t know how to help them get better. Be patient with them, let them know that talking to you is a safe space without any judgment, one that they can rely on.
While you may have their best interest at heart and know them better than anyone else, you must urge them to seek professional help when their distress appears to be prolonged. And when they do, encourage them to stick to the treatment and continue to support them.