Mental Health

What NOT to Say to Someone Suffering from Depression

Trigger warning: This article talks about depression.

In a given year, depression affects about seven percent of the American population. With many millions suffering from it, most people likely know someone who is depressed.

There is a stigma surrounding depression, and a lack of understanding from people who don’t experience it. As a result, even when people think they are comforting and helping, they often end up making the sufferer feel more alone and misunderstood.

Some comments come from a good place, but are misguided due to a lack of information about depression. Depression is the result of a combination of biological and environmental factors; imbalances in brain chemistry, trauma, and other things beyond a person’s control can contribute to them having depression. Unfortunately, many people associate depression with grief or regular sadness, and what they say about it reflects that. These comments aren’t cruel, but they are uninformed.

Other comments are quite insensitive and outright mean or rude.

It’s important not to avoid talking to someone with depression for fear of saying the wrong thing. But it’s still good to be cautious. The most important thing is to avoid giving people unsolicited advice on how they can lessen or, even worse, “cure” their depression. This is not what they are looking for, nor what they need. For example, here are eight things you definitely should not say to someone suffering from depression:

  1. Do not tell them that changing up their look or wearing brighter colors will improve their mood. People feel most comfortable wearing what they’re used to and what they want to, and encouraging them to change things up will make them feel insecure and uneasy.
  2. Do not tell them that they’d be happier if they lost weight. This will simply be a hit to their self-esteem, and could lead to worsened feelings and/or dangerous behavior.
  3. Do not tell them that maybe they would feel better if they smiled more or talked to people more often. People deal with their depression in their own ways; don’t force an introvert to talk more, and don’t tell people to paste a fake smile on their face. It doesn’t really help to feign happiness.
  4. Do not suggest they go on a diet, that forgoing junk food and eating greens will cure them. Again, encouraging them to change the lifestyle they are used to will likely lead to discomfort and self-doubt.  
  5. Do not tell them that if they ignore their depression or don’t acknowledge it, then it’ll go away. This could turn them off of seeking help, for example therapy and/or medication. Talking about their depression helps a lot of people, and encouraging them to do the opposite only hurts them and makes them feel ashamed and wrong.
  6. Do not tell them not to complain, or that they shouldn’t bother others and bring them down. It is very important for people with depression to know that they have people who care about them, who they can rely on to always be there. They need good friends to talk to when they feel low; you should never take this security away from them.
  7. Do not tell them to get out of bed and out of the house. Like I said before, people cope in their own ways. You shouldn’t try to force them to do things they don’t want to; that doesn’t help anyone.
  8. Do not tell them that they have no reason to be sad, that it’s all in their head, or that so many people have worse lives than them. Depression is a mental illness; an actual medical disorder. It’s not just a mood swing or a case of the blues; it’s one hundred percent legitimate and you need to acknowledge that before making them feel worse.

Everyone experiences depression in their own way; it’s extremely personal. As a result no one really knows exactly what a person suffering from depression feels or what can help them. Especially as a friend or family member with no personal experience, it is very hard to relate to someone in this situation.

But there’s still a lot you can do. You can recognize depression as a serious mental illness that needs to be considered with the same seriousness as any other kind of medical issue. You can offer comfort without forcing your advice on someone. You can simply be there for them, make them know they are loved and wanted and can ask you for anything. And most importantly, you shouldn’t treat them any differently once you find out they have depression. They don’t need babying, nor do they need to be treated like a freak; they need security and solace, which can come in part from their relationships remaining just as strong and steady as always.

Don’t be condescending or give unsolicited advice. Don’t assume you know anything about their struggle.

Just be a good friend, sibling, spouse, coworker, or whatever else. That is all you need to do.

If you or someone you know is suffering from depression, there are resources that can help. You can contact Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and set up an appointment, or call Penn’s Help Line at 215-898-4357.