They have depression and you want to help. How do you express care or concern in a way that’ll actually help?
Sadness, just like happiness, is a reaction and can be a state of mind. Depression, though, starts in the synapses of the brain and affects hormones.
Depression doesn’t ease up. It goes beyond feeling sad and isn’t necessarily tied to a preceding circumstance, like sadness sometimes is. Depression has definitive symptoms, causing body and brain changes, that others can sometimes see.
Signs of depression
To receive a diagnosis of depression, a mental health professional will look for five or more of the following symptoms. These symptoms need to be experienced during at least a 2-week period.
Depression symptoms are outside your “normal” disposition and are disruptive to your life:
- feeling empty, hopeless, or filled with despair all day, every day, for at least 2 weeks*
- obvious lack of interest in nearly every daily activity, especially favorite activities or hobbies*
- weight loss or weight gain without intentional dieting or bulking up
- insomnia almost every day or sleeping too much
- noticeably restless (absent-minded pacing, picking, etc.) or visible slowing of speech, thought processing, actions, and reactions without the use of substances
- significant fatigue
- unprompted feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- thoughts of death or dying, with or without necessarily wanting to die
- daily indecisiveness or concentration issues
- plans for suicide or suicide attempt
*Must be experienced to receive a diagnosis
1. ‘Be it long or short, all seasons change’
“‘You won’t always feel this way.’ That was the perfect sentence that I could hear 50 times a day when I wanted out, out, out, of this world,” says Therese J. Borchard, mental health advocate, author, and founder of the online depression community Project Hope & Beyond.
“Those words don’t judge, impose, or manipulate. What they do is convey hope, and HOPE is what keeps a person alive, or at least motivated to get to the next day to see if the light at the end of the tunnel is really a place of rebirth…” Borchard says.
Tone and body language are very important here, as a statement like this could come off condescending or dismissive otherwise.
2. ‘Is there something I can do for you?’
Authors can attest: One thing all writing manuals say is show, don’t tell. Words may not be that helpful to someone with depression.
So, the best way to really support someone is to offer something specific and tangible, like, “I’m picking up groceries, what can I get you?”
If someone is embarrassed by or resistant to offers of help, reword it so it sounds like they’re doing you a favor. For example:
- “My dog is lonely. Is it OK if I walk your dog, too, so he has someone to run around with?”
- “I promised my kids a playdate this weekend. Can I pick up your kids and take them all to the park for a couple of hours?”
3. ‘What do you think might help you feel better?’
Taking the energy you’d normally put into problem-solving and instead being open to ideas from your loved one can show deference and respect.
This can also acknowledge that you just might not understand the workings of depression but are still happy to help, with their direction.
4. ‘Can I drive you somewhere?’
Depression can sap all your energy. It might not hurt to ask your loved one with depression if they need a ride somewhere.
Some studies have found that people with depression might engage in more aggressive driving behaviors, and could have greater risk of roadway accidents. When depression is present, driver safety might be at risk due to delayed reaction times.
5. ‘Can I come over and hang out?’
Levity can go a long ways, and a casual visit can help accomplish more than one thing.
One, your loved one might not be up for a group hang, but they may enjoy some one-on-one time to chat.
Two, you can help out with chores and housekeeping while you’re there enjoying their company.
Keeping your environment generally organized and tidy may be among the first outward-facing things that slip when depression or anxiety worsen. This means that laundry and dishes might pile up.
This can be especially true when your loved one is also a caregiver of children or other people.
Don’t make a show of helping out, and don’t comment on how cleaning up will make them feel better. Just do what you can — with their permission — without seeking anything in return.
Be sure to ask and confirm a time before you show up. No one likes an unexpected visitor!
6. ‘Thank you for trusting me to support you’
It takes courage to let someone know that you have depression, and to let them in during a vulnerable time.
Let your loved one with depression know that their vulnerability is brave. Thank them for being open about their situation with you.
This may help build mutual respect and may truly comfort them. If they’re in a situation where they temporarily need your help, balancing the scales with an expression of gratitude for being among their trust circle may help by acknowledging it’s a two-way street.
7. ‘Can you think of anything contributing to what you’re experiencing?’
This can be a very gentle way of allowing your loved one to arrive at their own conclusions for why they’re experiencing a depressive episode. It lets them have their revelation on their terms without any leading or presumptive remarks.
This might also be a good time to ask whether they’d like to talk with a mental health professional.
Just don’t push or ask about sensitive experiences that may make your loved one feel exposed, or anxious to come up with something.
For most people, it’s not one thing that triggers a depressive episode. There are many triggers or reasons that cause or worsen depression.
And remember, for many people, there’s nothing tangible that can explain why they feel the way they feel, and that’s OK.
8. ‘What time of day is hardest for you?’
This question may give those who are within your loved one’s support circle an idea when to check in.
For example, getting out of bed in the morning and starting the day is most difficult for some people. For others, it’s coming home in the evening when they may be alone.
Some people may not have a specific time of day, but Mondays or weekends may be when the depressive episode worsens. For others, it’s holidays like Christmas, or even summertime.
Whenever it is, you can use that time frame of when your loved one may feel most vulnerable to send a short text, call them, or invite them out for something low-key, like a walk.
In the event that you have to communicate with a mental health professional for your loved one, you’ll also have some details for diagnostic criteria to share.
9. ‘I’m here for you’
It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it communicates everything you need to say: I care, I get it, I may not understand it, but I love you and support you.
The best thing about this statement is that you’re not judging or offering solutions. You’re there for them to be themselves, no matter what version of self that happens to be that day, week, or month.
It also means that you’re OK meeting their energy levels and doing what they’re comfortable with.
Sometimes saying nothing has the most power.
There’s a proverb that goes, “Better to be quiet and thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt.”
This may be the most uncomfortable thing to “say” because many people want to fill in the silence with something, even if it’s small talk. But saying nothing — and listening instead — is sometimes the most appropriate response.
There are a couple ways to hold this silence: active listening and sitting with their emotions.
Below is a TED Talk on how to be fully present for others that may be useful. Active listening is a skill set that can keep a conversation going without adding your opinion.
Sit with it
In other instances, you don’t need to make any attempts to get your loved one to open up at all.
Simply being there in the room with them, or on the other end of a phone call, and not having expectations nor urgency to “fix” anything says and supports more than anything else.
So, you’ve got prompts and phrases to help support your loved one with depression.
As we all know, tone of voice affects how others receive or reject our words.
A research review on tone, inflection, and cadence in speech — called prosody — found that study participants interpreted the same sentence as either motivational or not, depending on prosody.
The right body language — and practicing active listening — can help demonstrate to your loved one that you’re open to whatever they have to say, that you’re here for them.
While using nonverbal communication
Open body language includes:
A brief flash of the eyebrows
If you’d like your loved one to focus on and engage with what you’re saying, try giving a warm smile and quick shrug of your eyebrows.
But if the other person is closed off, don’t mirror that. Instead, offer open body language to help demonstrate positivity.
Keep your arms unfolded and your hands out of your pockets.
Experts say that keeping your arms loose and hands visible can help avoid the anger, frustration, or stress that’s communicated with folded arms or hands tucked out of sight (which may insinuate that something is being concealed).
Give pause for softened eye contact coupled with a relaxed mouth (i.e., the opposite of a piercing gaze). Unfurled eyebrows may express our curious and favorable interest in whom we’re communicating with.
Write it down
Drew Coster, a therapist, health coach, and writer, provides a template letter to use during a depressive episode to help people who can’t find the words to address what they’re experiencing.
Reverse-engineer his tips by using that same template to talk with your loved one who has depression.
Coster suggests that the novelty of a letter helps add meaning. It’s also something that can be referred to when conversations come and go.
Your utility belt is now full of helpful and sincere tools to support your loved one with depression. Now it’s time to make sure you know what not to say.
If any of the below sound familiar, go ahead and get them out of your vernacular.
1. ‘It’s all in your head, you need to think positive’
Optimism and having a hopeful outlook can certainly be important, but it’s important to remember that positive thinking doesn’t always work — especially when forcing it.
For example, a
In the study, participants were asked to solve a puzzle. The participants who asked themselves “Will I?” solved nearly twice as many as those who declared “I will…”
Telling a loved one to “just be positive” is the same as “snap out of it.” You’re implying that what they’re feeling isn’t real or a big deal, or that they can “control” their depression.
Depression is a health condition like any other. We wouldn’t dream of telling someone with diabetes, for example, that it’s “all in their head.”
2. ‘I know how you feel’
Even if you yourself have depression, you don’t know exactly how someone else with depression feels.
Yes, you probably have good intentions and are trying to relate to them. But comparing your feelings with someone else’s can come off as dismissive.
Depression, and mental health in general, is highly personal. They manifest differently from person to person.
3. ‘It could be worse’
If your loved one is confiding in you or tells you that they’re feeling seriously depressed, don’t compare their situation with someone else’s or with an imaginary “more” worst-case scenario.
Saying, “Well at least you have so-and-so,” “You’re better off than so-and-so,” or “You think you have it bad…” insinuates that their mental health condition is not valid.
Respect the reality of your loved one. Thank them for sharing this with you. Tell them that you’ll support them in any way you can during this time.
4. ‘You should be glad/grateful that…’
Telling your loved one to be grateful implies that they have depression or anxiety because they’re not appreciative in some way.
It’s completely possible to have depression, anxiety, or any other mental health condition and be grateful for what you have.
5. ‘Don’t take yourself so seriously!’
Making this flippant comment suggests that someone with depression has caused their mental health condition. Making jokes about their condition or teasing them doesn’t provide levity or humor; it’s insensitive and unhelpful.
6. ‘You’re so negative’
For someone with depression, this can be downright cruel to hear.
Making comments like “Stop being so negative,” “You’re such a worrier,” or “You’re miserable” to someone with depression or anxiety isn’t only brash, it’s more telling about you than them.
These comments make it clear that you don’t understand the basics of depression — or any mental health condition, for that matter. Mental health conditions involve many complex factors. It’s not just an “outlook.”
7. ‘You’re just being selfish’
Depression has nothing to do with being selfish or self-centered. A kind, giving person can have depression.
Depression can often be an isolating condition, with a visible symptom of withdrwal. Selfishness is putting yourself before all else; withdrawal is to srhink back and therefore deny yourself before all else — this is why depression intervention involves support.
8. ‘Be strong, don’t be so weak’
Comments like these are along the same lines of “chin up” or “big boys don’t cry.”
Equating depression or mental health with weakness is ignorant. It also implies that someone can “get rid of” depression with willpower, or that they’re somehow defective.
9. ‘Cheer up, smile more’
Telling your loved one to “cheer up” or “just smile” implies that they have control over their depression or anxiety. “Faking it till you make it” doesn’t treat mental health any more than it can treat a physical wound.
Remember, depression is a condition that involves brain function manifesting into outward changes, not the other way around.
Understand how it hits different: How depression affects the brain.
Dismissing depression in this way can discourage people from seeking treatment. A lack of treatment, or not getting the right treatment, may lead to suicide.
Signs of suicide risk
There are some things we should all just know: how to perform CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, basic first aid. How to identify suicide risk needs to be one of those things too.
Signs of suicide risk include:
- wavering between not wanting to live and undecided about wanting to die
- withdrawing from loved ones and self-isolating
- talking or writing about death or suicide
- putting personal affairs in order, such as giving away prized possessions
- previous suicide attempts
For more details, read our FAQs about suicide.
10. ‘But you look happy’
Depression and other mental health conditions don’t always “look” the same.
Your loved one may seem happy and smile all the time, but that doesn’t mean that’s what they’re experiencing internally. They don’t have to “look depressed” to have depression.
If your loved one tells you that they’re feeling depressed or have depression, believe them, and don’t ask them to prove it to you. Respect that you didn’t know they were experiencing this, and don’t have to understand it fully, to be there for them.
We’ve given you some tools, tips, and science behind communicating with a loved one who has depression. Be encouraged. Although you can’t fix their situation, you can express — with or without words — your sincere care and concern.
Once you’ve listened heartily and communicated your support, give your loved one the space to accept your backing or not. Remember, how they receive your offer is up to them. Giving them that agency can make a world of difference.