If your loved one is living with depression, it’s natural to want to support them. Choosing your actions and words carefully can help.
Depression is a formal mental health diagnosis. It isn’t a personal choice or something you can turn on and off at will.
Depression isn’t about willpower or motivation to feel better. This is why it may not “go away” with encouraging words or motivational pep talk.
Support and compassion can help, though. And here’s where what you say and do can make a great difference.
If someone you care about lives with symptoms of depression, what you say can be taken one way or another depending on the challenges they’re facing.
You may want to avoid saying these things:
‘Everyone is going through something’
There are many potential causes of depression that go beyond a stressful life event.
Even though experts still can’t point to the exact cause of the condition, they’ve established a few contributing factors like:
- chemical imbalances in the brain
- side effects of medications
- unresolved grief
- physical conditions
“Depression is not simply being sad sometimes,” says Oddesty K Langham, a licensed clinical therapist in Birmingham, Alabama. “It significantly impacts a person’s ability to function and interact in life.”
Even if life presents challenges to everyone, living with depression is different than facing difficulties or having a stressful day.
‘You just need a drink’
If you haven’t had depression, it’s natural to see it as having many bad days in a row. This is how it’s often portrayed in the media.
But depression isn’t about needing a good time or forgetting what you’re going through by using alcohol.
It’s possible that inviting them to do a fun activity can help them in the moment, even if it won’t “cure depression.”
However, inviting them to use alcohol may be a tricky one. Here’s why.
Some people with depression may find temporary mental and physical relief in alcohol. Because of all the other symptoms they may be dealing with like poor self-esteem and insomnia, they could have an increased chance of adopting alcohol as a coping mechanism.
People living with depression are more likely to develop a substance use disorder, Langham explains.
Asking someone with depression to “cheer up” may be similar to telling someone with rheumatoid arthritis to “stop hurting.”
Depression isn’t a personal choice. It often requires professional support for symptoms to improve, and even then, it’s a long and complex process.
“Depression can cause prolonged sadness and inability to find joy or pleasure in life,” Langham states. “Depression can also make it difficult to do everyday tasks like maintaining proper hygiene.”
Even though not everyone with depression experiences the same symptoms, including sadness, the condition does affect mood. This isn’t something they can just remedy by “cheering up.”
‘Many people go through worse’
Validating how someone with depression feels is important. They often don’t know why they feel the way they do. This often leads them to experience guilt about having depression, particularly if their life is perceived as “good.”
But depression isn’t about how good or challenging your life is.
“Saying this to someone dealing with depression can cause increased feelings of loneliness, being misunderstood, and wanting to isolate,” says Langham.
You may not understand why they have depression, and that’s OK. Providing empathy and support, even when you cannot relate to what they’re going through, can go a long way.
‘You’re being selfish’
People with depression may be aware they’re not acting as usual, or that it’s difficult for them to socialize or complete some tasks.
Again, this isn’t by choice. It’s not their intention to do anything to you or anyone else. They’re doing the best they can with the resources they have at hand. Maybe you’d handle it differently. That’s OK. But they aren’t you.
“A person dealing with clinical depression is likely having a hard time keeping up with their own personal life,” says Langham. “They are not selfish; they are just not well. They may not have the capacity to be and do everything that someone else wants them to be or do.”
You may feel like it isn’t so, but your actions can greatly help someone with depression.
It won’t take their symptoms away, but your support can provide them with the hope they may be having a hard time coming up with themselves.
Hopelessness is a common symptom of depression. It may take away their sense of control and direction. This could be confusing for you, too.
“You may be at a loss regarding what to do and what ‘not to do,’” explains Lori Ryland, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Mt. Lauren, New Jersey.
But showing you’re there for them can help.
Don’t take it personal
What your loved one is going through isn’t about you.
“Making assumptions that the way the friend is acting is a personal affront can result in feeling defensive and may result in conflict,” says Ryland.
Even if it pushes your buttons at the time, try reminding yourself that their reactions are about what they’re going through and don’t have to do with you.
If you feel they’re crossing a line, it’s also OK to take a step back. There’s no reason why you should accept attitudes and behaviors that harm or hurt you. If you’re fine with it, you may want to circle back at another time when they’ve calmed down.
Don’t think you know better
It’s natural to want to advise your loved one or even push them to do something you believe is good for them.
In reality, depression often requires support from a mental health professional. However, it’s important that the decision to reach out for help comes from the person living with depression.
Pressuring them to socialize or do something when they don’t feel like it may lead them to withdraw from you. Again, it’s not personal. But they may not be ready to take the step you’ve set up for them.
You may want to meet them where they are, instead.
“It is best to learn everything you can about depression and listen more than you speak,” Ryland says.
Don’t avoid them
Seeing someone you care for facing significant challenges can be overwhelming and hurtful for you, too. It’s natural to feel this way.
“Spending time with someone with depression is not always enjoyable so the instinct may be to just let them be,” says Ryland. “Reminding your friend that you are still there for them is important.”
Try checking in from time to time by calling or texting. They may say “no” but inviting them to be with you or participate in an activity can also make them feel they have someone to rely on.
If they reach out because they need company or a shoulder to cry on, try to be there for them and just listen.
Support may be just a matter of showing up.
Avoid taking charge
There’s only so much you can do and say when someone has depression.
“It is important to support any autonomy and self-sufficiency your friend has. Be supportive but not controlling,” Ryland states.
Everyone’s experience is unique. Maybe you know someone else who had depression and handled things differently. Maybe you did if you went through something similar.
But not everyone experiences depression in the same way or with the same intensity.
“Suggesting that you know how he or she is feeling because you felt sad once or know someone else who has had a depressive condition is not helpful and may make your loved one feel invalidated,” explains Ryland.
Being there for someone with depression goes a long way. In addition to showing up, here are a few things you could keep in mind:
Empathy is about putting yourself in the other person’s shoes even if you can’t relate to their experience.
“You may not understand from experience what they are going through, but you can seek to understand their feelings and hold space for them by offering a listening ear or just being present,” says Langham.
Offer to help them find help
In the midst of emotional turmoil, it can be difficult to know what the best course of action is.
“A person dealing with depression may not have the energy or motivation to do what it takes to find a therapist or other mental health provider. You can assist them in finding one,” Langham explains.
You may make suggestions about a therapist or support group you know of, but the ultimate decision to take that step is your loved one’s.
If they’re open to the idea, you could help by:
- setting up appointments
- reminding them about important dates
- driving them to see their health team
Supporting someone with depression may be as simple as asking them what you can do. Do they need help with meals? Do they need company?
“If you don’t know what else to do, simply asking them how you can help, may open up the door for needed conversation that may lead to practical ways you can help them and also them having feelings of being heard, seen, and cared about,” says Langham.
If a loved one is living with depression, you can support them by showing up and avoiding things like telling them to cheer up or offering them alcohol.
Often, what someone with depression needs is to feel they can count on you and feel safe when they express how they feel.
You’ve taken the first step by exploring ways to help. Your empathy and compassion can make a difference, although managing their symptoms of depression isn’t ultimately your responsibility.