How to Really Help People with Depression

How to Really Help People with Depression
Four Ways to Talk to Someone with Depression

I’ve suffered from depression for as long as I could remember, but that’s difficult for me to say out loud – not because I’ve ever shied away from sharing my life experiences, but because part of me believes that I’m making my depression up.

For many years, well-intentioned friends and family would unknowingly gaslight me, telling me in numerous ways that I wasn’t actually depressed. Gaslighting, for those who don’t know, is the practice of psychologically manipulating someone so that they question their own sanity. I’d lament about my feelings, yet my closest friends were quick to tell me that if I just changed my attitude, my depression would go away.

Tragically, my loved ones truly thought they were helping. My guess is that they were fearful of validating my feelings – something I desperately needed them to do – because they thought validation would exacerbate my negative moods. Perhaps they were afraid they’d be indulging my condition.

Their solutions, whether they realized it or not, generally consisted of encouraging me to shove all my feelings deep down inside. To them, they weren’t gaslighting me. They were merely demonstrating “tough love.”

But their tough love approach never helped. In fact, it has caused irreparable damage to my psyche to the point where I no longer believe my own feelings. Even sitting here, with thousands of negative thoughts flooding in, I still think I can snap out of it with positive thoughts if I were just strong enough to do so.

If my friends and family knew the negative effects their tough love would have on me, I don’t believe they ever would’ve utilized their tactics.

Instead, they could use more compassionate and validating language, which would likelier achieve their desired outcomes.

Maybe you’ve tried your own version of tough love, and it’s time to reevaluate your approach too. Here are some tough love phrases that gaslight people with depression, and ways they could be substituted with more empathetic language.

More compassionate and validating language would be likelier achieve the desired outcomes.More compassionate and validating language would be likelier achieve the desired outcomes.

1. ‘Get Over It – You Have a Great Life!’

Speaking openly about depression makes many people feel uncomfortable. Folks aren’t accustomed to dealing with people who experience, and admit to, their raw emotions. Their impulse when they’re met with real emotions is to shut down the conversation before it can even get started.

They do this by reminding the depressed party about all of the good fortune they have in their lives. The undertone of what they’re saying is, “You should be more grateful,” but what they really mean is, “Please stop being depressed because I don’t like how it makes me feel.”

This could be for a number of reasons. It could be general discomfort, because some people feel uncomfortable with what they deem is “oversharing.” Likelier though, it’s because they would rather not see someone they care about having such a rough emotional time.

The impulse to want to “fix” the problem is partially due to people’s perceptions that emotions are “weak”, while “logic” is strong. While an overabundance of emotions isn’t always useful, completely ignoring one’s emotions will definitely be detrimental to one’s health.

Besides, “logic” cannot operate without emotions behind them, because we, at our essence, are emotional creatures.

It’s better to be honest with your emotions if you don’t know how to help a depressed person.

Before delving right into “problem-solving” mode, it’s much more helpful to simply say this: “I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”

By admitting this simple emotion, you introduce solidarity instead of condescension, and it serves the same function as trying to lift someone’s spirits. The difference is, the language is more empathetic and less judgmental.

Sometimes, all people really need is a little bit of compassion, sympathy, and empathy. This may or may not stop the depressive spell, but at least you can take comfort knowing that you shared a connection with someone you care about, and you made them feel less alone.

This is much more useful than unintentionally invalidating someone’s experiences, making them feel even worse than before.

“I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”“I’m sorry for what you’re going through.”

2. ‘Here’s What You Should Do’

Reiterating one of my previous points, the inclination to problem-solve is reflexive in many people. When they hear that someone is depressed, they want to offer advice immediately.

While some of the advice can be useful – such as encouraging yoga, exercise, meditation, etc. – it’s extremely condescending to give advice before any type of validation.

Without realizing it, when somebody offers unsolicited advice, they’re implying, “You wouldn’t be depressed if you tried harder not to be depressed.”

What they don’t realize is that sadness is different from depression. Sadness, in actuality, is a healthy human emotion that happens as a reaction or reactions to events.

Depression, on the other hand, is a chemical imbalance which doesn’t necessarily require a trigger, and it is much more pervasive than temporary sadness.

Everybody feels sadness at times, but not everybody has depression.

So the intention of offering unsolicited advice, telling depressed people that “this is what you should do,” is to give someone the tools to hopefully dissipate depression. But since depression doesn’t necessarily have a cure, these pieces of advice may ultimately be futile.

Instead of offering advice at the very outset, you can instead say this: “Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

By using this verbiage instead, you validate someone’s experiences and emotions by letting them know that you feel for their pain and that you would like to help. It’s likely that there really isn’t anything you can “do,” per se, but the offer is always nice to hear. Sometimes, it’s best just to offer the support and, if need be, to listen.

More importantly, by offering to help instead of offering advice, there’s no presumption that you know the solution on how to get better, and there is no pressure from you that you want them to get better on your timeframe. You aren’t implying that there are solutions, because advice implies that there are cures that depressed people simply aren’t using, which, once again, is gaslighting someone and invalidating their feelings.

You hopefully take off some of the pressure, and you let them know that you’ll be there for them no matter what.

It’s likely that there really isn’t anything you can “do,” per se, but the offer is always nice to hear.It’s likely that there really isn’t anything you can “do,” per se, but the offer is always nice to hear.

3. ‘What Happened? Why Are You Depressed?’

This is another seemingly innocuous phrase used on people who are depressed. The reason why it isn’t a harmless question is because by asking someone “what happened,” you are implying that a trigger must’ve caused the depression.

This implies that a trigger is required to spark depression and/or depressive spells. But that’s not how depression works for everyone. For many people, depression comes out of nowhere.

I’ve spent countless hours trying to rack my brain during depressive spells. “Why do I feel this way?” I’d ask myself, instead of accepting the reality that I feel the way I feel.

After years of others gaslighting me, I unknowingly started gaslighting myself. Many times I’d feel incapacitated and I’d punish myself further with self-harm, both physically and mentally.

“You shouldn’t feel this way. Nothing happened for you to feel this way.”

Instead of asking somebody “what happened,” the same good intentions can be accomplished by saying this: “I’m sorry that you’re depressed, and there’s nothing wrong with you for feeling this way.”

The reason why this is important to say is because there are many stigmas and a lot of shame associated with having depression. Depression is horrible enough to experience on its own, and adding shame to it is an unnecessary burden.

You are helping to minimize the shame and reminding them that while their experiences are difficult, their reality is also valid, and their worth as a person stays intact no matter how many depressive spells they have.

You are helping to minimize the shame.You are helping to minimize the shame.

4. ‘You Should Get Up and Do Something!’

What many people don’t realize is just how debilitating depression can be. Last year, I went back to look at my calendar, and I realized that for a full year, I had called out sick from work once a month around the same day every month. Those days, my depression was so severe that I couldn’t even get out of bed.

When I told people that I was suffering from debilitating depression, their inclination was to tell me to get up and leave the house. Take a walk around the neighborhood. Go to the store. Socialize with friends.

While I appreciate their intentions, I always felt like they didn’t really believe me when I told them about how horrible these spells can get. They would try to relate to me with stories about how sad they’ve felt at certain instances in their lives and how, by leaving the house, their sadness went away.

The thing is, I completely understood what they were trying to say. They were trying to tell me that by staying cooped up in my apartment, I was making my depression worse. There may be a grain of truth to this, but they were missing the point entirely.

Depression is more than a feeling. It can be an all-encompassing heaviness that has real physical manifestations, such as lethargy, periodic crying, headaches, and nausea. What they’re telling me is that I can overcome “sadness,” and this was insulting because there have been many instances when I had gone to work while being sad, or had forced myself to leave the house when I didn’t feel well.

Once again, depression and sadness are not the same things, and they thought that they had the magic cure for my experiences.

Instead of trying to make someone “do” something, you can instead say this: “Try to be patient with yourself.” If people’s intents are to speed up the recovery process, it may seem counterintuitive to tell someone to be patient with themselves. It goes against our “tough love” culture which tells us that any sign of vulnerability is a form of weakness. Patience and self-care are dismissed as passive options for weak people.

The reality is, the only times I’ve ever been able to power through depressive spells has been through patience and self-care. By taking the pressure off myself that I “had” to get better as soon as I could, I was able to slow down, breathe, and process my depression at my own pace.

I didn’t have to worry about a friend of mine making me feel even worse for being debilitated, as if I didn’t already feel horrible and useless enough. The self-criticisms only kept me in bed for even longer, because I spent so much time trying to talk myself into believing that I should be “getting better” more quickly if I were more physically proactive.

Sometimes, that just isn’t possible.

It may seem counterintuitive to tell someone to be patient with themselves. It may seem counterintuitive to tell someone to be patient with themselves.

You should try to be compassionate when communicating with someone who suffers from depression, because chances are, they’re finding it hard to feel compassion for themselves. Don’t make it even more difficult.

I believe that although depression doesn’t necessarily have a “cure,” it can be more manageable depending on the support people receive from their friends, family, and loved ones. Now that I’ve done away with people who utilize “tough love” tactics, my spells are absolutely easier to cope with than they ever have been.

Depression is still crushingly difficult, but the despair doesn’t feel quite as heavy, because my current friends don’t invalidate my experiences.

By using more compassionate language, they make me feel less alone.

Conversely, tough love always made me feel even lonelier, more ashamed, and burdensome on everybody in my life. I firmly believe that most people don’t want their depressed friends and family to feel this way, and hopefully, by providing more compassionate language in place of “tough love,” people can feel validated and loved – and they can feel less alone.

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Beverley woodward
4 years ago

Hi, ‘ve had depression for a long is difficult to talk about it.people run a mile!when they depression is under mental’s not something you can talk openly about.

Anna Nederdal
4 years ago

Depression is not an imbalance in the brain! I can’t believe UPLIFT can publish such a lie!

5 years ago

Interesting thoughts. I believe I am compassionate but their have been times when by listening to unwell, depressed people for hours it has drained me also. The wallowing in self-pity, stealing my good energy has appeared to uplift them and exhaust me. Agree with Ronnies answer. Whatever the reason sadness, depression, chemical imbalance I hope all of you can find ways to overcome your condition. Laughter and gratitude heals and not taking the world so damn seriously.

5 years ago

After reading the article, I felt it was on point. When people ask you why you’re depressed you don’t know. If you knew you wouldn’t be right? I know most people need mean well when they’re saying these things but the truth is they don’t understand depression. Quite honestly neither do I. It just happens. Sometimes there are triggers and you can figure that out and learn to cope better. Sometimes there’s not. It just is. So you moved their life trying different things in different ways to improve yourself. That’s what I do. Psychiatrist or like slot machines, except instead of quarters their $100. They’re just experimenting on you. They have no clue either. Unless you get a complete neurological workup, physical work up and mental work up you won’t have a clue. And even after all of that you still may not know.

5 years ago

This is a wonderful article. I have had depression for decades. Functionally quite well in my career, but this beast always brewing beneath the surface. On medication, which helped much to keep me functioning, but still many days I wanted to run from myself and couldn’t.
I too, have called in sick many times due to the energy it would take to interact with others for 8+ hrs.
I hope on an uplifting path that will help…step, by step, eliminating stressors in my life. Divorced an occasional verbally abusive husband who “Gaslighted” me for 18 years, and “Cleaning my space” which I also have not had to myself since after college 40+ years ago.
Bless you all on your journeys ?

6 years ago

I’ve had family members with depression & it is difficult to see someone you love, suffer so much… I just wanted them to be happy & helped all the ways I could. After all one off them blamed me for giving too much & broke with me. Another person was telling me he was looking for the easiest ways to kill himself because he was depressed since such a long time (which my ex-housbond did also). I told him:”you have 2 kids, is that really the role model you want to be for them?” He got upset: “at least, I thought that you would be compassionate”. Any how the next day he felt better & started to solve his problems one by one & is feeling better since then. He is more enjoying his kids & partner instead off complaing all the time.

Ronnie Slogun
6 years ago

Thank you very much for this article. It brings up a problem I’ve personally been thinking about quite a while. I thought I’d share a couple of thoughts.
It is especially interesting for me as a person who was born in what once was the Soviet bloc, but spent a large portion of life in the West, so I often find myself on a borderline between two worlds/two approaches and thus may allow myself to speak freely of both.
The problem of the Western society and its mentality is that it is utterly pragmatic. It historically developed in this fashion. People in the West, as you rightly said, are afraid of showing feelings. World is to be perceived solely through rational understanding of it, according to Western morality; but the problem is that we are not only rational, but emotional beings, and only in a harmonious combination of both ways of perception of this life can we ever find inner peace.
Thinking that the depression is merely a “chemical imbalance” is also, inadvertently, playing into the hands of the same pragmatic approach: if it was so, then the depression would easily be cured by anti-depressants (and it is not). Rational, pragmatic solution, isn’t it? The problem, however, is deeper than that. Depression seems to be the call from our irrational primal cores; it is a warning from our ancient soul that says “hey, something’s wrong inside, there is no harmony between me and myself”.
I would strongly suggest that the first thing a person who battles with depression while living, for example, in the U.S. should do, is to leave and go somewhere else, but necessarily to a place where sensual rather than rational perception of life is a part of common mentality. Try Southern Europe, Balkans, or even Russia. Don’t believe the hype that is currently created in the West about Russian “toughness”. Current mentality problems in Russia are caused, in part, by the fact that the society, that was traditionally based on sensual perception of life and the attempt to grasp the “unknown”, is forced into the pragmatic realities of the contemporary globalized world with the obligatory belonging to a pragmatic mentality, imposed by the Western/American “way of life”, which is seen by the Americans as the only right way to exist (and it is, of course, not so, simply because there are many different alternatives). But as a society that is historically keen on battling depression, Russians are much more prone to feel compassionate to a person who is baffled by existential crisis and will not have any problems to let you know that they sympathize completely. And if you get to the level of affinity where you find yourself sitting over a bottle of booze with a Russian, you might even feel you’re on your way to cathartic revelation which will show you the way and the lost meaning of life.

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