If someone you love has depression, it’s normal to feel at a loss, helpless, or worried about saying the wrong thing. If you’re reading this, though, you’re already doing something right. Looking for answers and learning about depression is an act of care and love in itself.
With around 16 million American adults each year experiencing at least one episode of major depression, there’s not going to be a one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to helping someone who has this mental health condition. Saying the right thing is obviously going to depend on a lot of different factors (like your relationship with this person, their general personality, the current situation, etc.).
The thing is, saying something is often better than saying nothing. If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, here are a few suggestions that come straight from mental health experts. Of course, you don’t need to say these verbatim, but the sentiment of each one is typically a good place to start.
1. “It sounds like you’re having a really tough time. Depression is the worst.”
When a friend or family member tells you they’re dealing with depression, your first instinct may be to point out all the good things in their life.
Unfortunately, depression doesn’t need a good reason to impact someone. “All kinds of people—rich and poor, married and single, and men and women from all walks of life—are vulnerable to feelings of depression,” New York-based clinical psychologist Allison Ross, Ph.D, M.P.H., tells SELF. Shining a light on what you see as the positives in their life won’t help, nor will using what you view as a logical explanation of why they shouldn’t feel depressed, Ross says.
What’s more, saying things like, “You have so much to be grateful for, how can you be sad?” will probably only shame them for feeling that way, Lekeisha Sumner, Ph.D, clinical health psychologist at UCLA, tells SELF.
Roxanne C., 24, tells SELF that when friends make statements like, “You have no reason to be unhappy,” it exacerbates the self-blame already involved in her depression. “Pointing out everything I have that other people don’t makes me feel invalidated,” Roxanne says, because her depression is not based on her circumstances. “I already feel guilty enough for having every opportunity and still feeling this way.”
If someone says they have depression, don’t try to argue. The best thing you can do is simply accept what they are saying and be frank about how much depression sucks.
2. “I can’t fully understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you no matter what.”
Another common (and understandable) impulse is to tell the person you understand what they’re going through, but sometimes this isn’t helpful, Emanuel Maidenberg, Ph.D., clinical professor of psychiatry and the director of the Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Clinic at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA, tells SELF.
Let’s be honest: You don’t really know what’s going through any person’s head, even if you also experience depression (more on that in just a moment). Pretending that you do can minimize what your friend is going through. Instead of cultivating empathy, it can actually make them feel more misunderstood and isolated, which of course isn’t your goal.
A better idea? Remind the person that even (or especially) when you don’t totally get it, you’re still 100 percent there for them. This is something Roxanne really appreciates hearing when she feels depressed, she says.
3. “I’m not sure how true this is for you, but in my experience with depression…”
The previous item on this list doesn’t mean you have to clam up about your own mental health. If you’ve dealt with depression in the past or present, you should feel free to let your loved one know. “This information can help a person going through a difficult time feel less alone,” Ross says. “Knowing others have gone through something similar can also help them feel less ashamed or blaming towards themselves for how they’re feeling.”
Again, though, there is a fine line between empathy and presuming you understand every single aspect of what your friend is going through. Avoid statements like, “I know exactly how you feel right now. I’ve felt depressed, too,” clinical psychologist Rudy Nydegger, Ph.D, chief of psychology at Ellis Hospital and professor at Union College, tells SELF.
Instead, you can say you feel for them and, based on what they’re saying, it sounds like you’ve had a similar experience with depression. If they do want to hear more about it, they’ll ask you (and probably appreciate your openness). Otherwise, you can move the conversation forward with some of the other options on this list.
4. “I’m always going to be here to talk, but beyond that, what do you think of therapy?”
If your friend or relative is experiencing depression and is not in treatment, they would likely benefit from therapy. “Friends and family cannot fulfill the responsibility of a professional,” Nydegger says. “Therapy is not just about talking and getting it off your chest. It is complex and requires a lot of training and experience.”
So, while it’s helpful for you to bring up therapy as a prospect if they aren’t going, that doesn’t mean you should say things like, “You should really see someone” or “You need professional help,” which can be patronizing.
Instead, make the suggestion “gently and tentatively,” Ross says. Phrase it as an open-ended question, not a demand, by asking what they think about seeing a mental health professional. Maybe they’ll shut the conversation down, in which case you can revisit it later. Or maybe they’re waffling on the idea and could use the extra support and destigmatization. “You may need to encourage them to seek professional treatment,” Sumner says. “For most people, treatment is effective,” Sumner says. But they also need to be open to it.
The catch is that, even if your loved one is interested in therapy, it can be incredibly hard to find a therapist who takes their insurance if they have it, to find someone who’s affordable if they don’t, to find someone who’s taking new clients at this time…the list goes on. If you have the bandwidth, offering to help your friend search can be a kind show of love and support.
After that, though, give the person the chance to take action. “Encourage the prospective patient to make the call themselves,” Nydegger says. “[The person] should take the responsibility for their care and make the arrangements.”
5. “I’m heading out for a walk this afternoon—do you want to come?”
Socializing, exercising, and simply getting out of the house can be beneficial for people with depression, depending on their situation. But they likely know this already, so simply saying something like, “Why don’t you go for a run?” isn’t likely to be helpful.
Instead, center these kinds of suggestions around the opportunity to do something together, Nydegger says, like asking if they’d like to join you for a walk. “You drop it if they say no—don't lecture,” Nydegger says. Following up with something like, “You know sunshine and exercise are good for you!” is exactly what they don’t need to hear, and it won’t help. “It just shows that you don't understand how badly the person feels, and it often creates resistance,” Nydegger says.
6. “Are you thinking of hurting yourself?”
Not everyone who experiences depression also experiences suicidal thoughts, so this may not be relevant in all situations. However, if someone close to you has opened up about their mental health situation to you, or if you’ve noticed drastic changes in their mood or behavior, it may be appropriate to broach this subject.
If your loved one is considering hurting themselves, they might be showing warning signs in their words or actions. These include mentions of feeling trapped, hopeless, or burdensome, as well as behavioral changes like social isolation and an increased reliance on drugs or alcohol, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). Learn about the indicators, and if you notice them in a loved one with depression (or get a feeling something is seriously wrong for a reason not on the list), ask them.
“People tend to shy away from asking these kinds of questions out of a fear that mentioning them will increase the likelihood of [a person harming themselves],” says Ross, but that is not the case. “Allowing the person to acknowledge the extent of their despair will make it possible for you to take immediate action, if need be.”
That could mean getting in touch with their family or driving them to the emergency room. Also, resources like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which you can call at 1-800-273-8255, exist for this very reason. You or your loved one can reach out to them for potentially life-saving help. Here’s more information about exactly what you can do if you’re concerned a person you care about may be considering suicide.