I was speaking to a friend a couple of weeks ago and he was telling me that he thinks one of his work colleagues might be suffering from depression.
My friend, not sure how to deal with the situation, had told his colleague to get out more and do some exercise.
His intentions were 100% well-meaning but, because he has not experienced depression himself, they were just a bit off the mark. Pretty wildly off the mark actually.
I get it. Its difficult as to know what to say to someone with depression.
So to help navigate that particular minefield, here are a few things that experience has taught me you should never say to someone you think may be suffering from depression.
Snap Out Of It
Cheer up, snap out of it or any other such variation.
This implies that depression is in some way within your control; and I can tell you for a fact that I have rarely felt in control of my depression.
Depression is such a horrible, debilitating illness that had I been able to just ‘snap out of it’, I definitely would have.
Unfortunately it isn’t quite as easy as that. As I said above, it’s an illness and recovery usually takes a long time and often requires medical treatment.
You Should Do More Exercise
It is true that exercise is very good for depression. Many studies have shown that it can be more effective than antidepressants.
But here’s the thing. Most depressed people will already know that. I certainly did. I knew it would help, I desperately wanted to get better, and yet I was completely unable to make myself do even the smallest amount of exercise.
In the early days of my mental health problems, I was doing well if I actually got myself out of bed and to the sofa. And if I managed to have a shower then…wow! So you can see how even going for a walk felt like climbing Mount Everest.
At that point, people telling me to exercise more just gave me an extra thing to beat myself up about and made me feel even worse.
It Could Be Worse
One of my favourite all time depression comments came from a previous boss. She tried to make me feel better by telling me to think about all the children starving in African countries and how I didn’t really have anything to be depressed about in comparison.
However I kept a straight face I will never know.
Yes I know that things could be worse. I know that I actually have a pretty good life and that I don’t actually have anything to be depressed about. And of course I know that I am a hundred times luckier than children starving around the World.
But depression is an illness; it isn’t rational. It doesn’t care about how great your life is.
I never recall feeling depressed about anything in particular. It was never a result of things that I felt were going wrong in my life. It was just a very dark, heavy cloud that settled over me and made me feel as though everything was hopeless, even when it wasn’t.
You Don’t Look Depressed
I suppose that before I developed mental health problems, I also had an image in my head of what a depressed person would look like. Someone who never got out of bed, couldn’t work and couldn’t look after themselves.
I have had periods of time like that. But the vast majority of my time with depression hasn’t looked like that. I’ve been working and looking after myself. And I can be very good at painting on a smile even when I feel like absolute shit.
There have been times when I have been at work all day, seemingly fine and cheery, only to go home and go straight to bed from the exhaustion of trying to appear ‘normal’.
I’ve realised that there is no such thing as the typical image of a depressed person; it affects everyone and their lives differently. So just because someone appears happy, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they aren’t battling a whole host of negative thoughts and emotions beneath the surface.
You’re Acting Crazy
I’ll be the first to admit that I have done or thought things that weren’t completely rational during my struggles with mental health.
I used to regularly have the urge to bash my head against very sharp corners of furniture. I did actually try to do it on a couple of occasions. I broke countless phones by hurling them across the room for reasons I can’t recall. I fled the house at 3am once and wandered the streets, kind of hoping someone would come and knock me over or murder me.
Pretty heavy right?
Some might say, a little ‘crazy’. That’s certainly how I felt anyway.
What I didn’t need was someone else telling me I was acting ‘crazy’ when I already felt that way.
Stop Being So Selfish
You kind of do get a little self-absorbed when you have depression. At least I did anyway. When you are feeling such incredible psychological pain, its difficult to really think about anything or anyone else.
Sometimes it is necessary for someone suffering from depression to put themselves and their own mental health first. That doesn’t mean that they are being selfish. It doesn’t mean that they don’t care about anyone else. They’re just trying to survive.
Calling somebody selfish isn’t going to help anyone, especially not the depressed person.
It’s All In Your Head
Erm…yes. It is a mental illness. So by definition it is something that is in my head.
What it isn’t is something completely imaginary and made up. It is a real, recognised illness and something that requires proper care to recover from.
These are just a few of the different unhelpful (but often well-meaning) comments that I have encountered over the past few years. There are countless more. Basically anything that puts blame on the person suffering with depression, or plays down the things they are feeling should be avoided.
Instead, just letting that person know that you understand they are struggling and that you are there for them if they need you will be ten times more helpful than any of the above comments.