When someone you care about is struggling, you really want to help. Often people don’t know what to say or do, or are afraid of doing the wrong thing, and therefore end up not doing anything at all. When there is a loved one suffering from depression in the family, it can be exhausting for everyone. Depressed people are sometimes hard to be around. They are tired, irritable, low on energy, and generally unhappy (these are, after all, symptoms of clinical depression). So what’s a friend or partner to do? Here are some common things people say that are NOT the most helpful, along with suggestions for more empathic responses.

  • “It’s all in your head”
    Yes, technically true. However, the symptoms of depression are often physical. This is called somatization. A person with depression may have actual physical symptoms, including fatigue, headaches, stomachaches, tension, chest tightness, feelings of heaviness or general aches and pains. It is good to rule out any possible medical reason for these symptoms, but often physical symptoms come along with mental distress. By telling a person “it’s all in their head,” you are implying that there is really nothing wrong with them. So why do they feel so awful? This statement has the effect of discounting their pain as trivial.Instead, try:“It must be really hard to feel so physically bad on top of feeling down.”
  • “Everything happens for a reason”
    This well-meaning statement can backfire. Although I believe in telling this to myself sometimes for a little self-motivation, I resist telling it to other people. It implies that they may have done something wrong, or somehow deserve this depression.Instead, try:“I hope someday you can get some clarity on this and look back on this difficult time as a distant memory.”
  • “You won’t be given more than you can handle”
    This is another statement that can sometimes be good for self-motivation, but usually isn’t helpful to tell other people. People with depression often go through periods of feeling like they absolutely can’t handle it. The emotions can be overwhelming, they’re tired, they feel awful. They will wonder if things will ever change or what they did to deserve this. Being told you should be able to handle something that you can’t can feel defeating.Instead, try:“You are strong and capable and I know you’ll get through this.”
  • “Everyone gets depressed sometimes!”
    This attempt at sympathizing can trivialize a person’s pain. Yes, everyone gets sad sometimes. That is very different from depression. Actual depression is a collection of symptoms that can range in severity, and includes low mood and sadness that persists for a 2-week period or more. However, it is much more than having a bad day or feeling down for a while, and definitely does NOT happen to everyone.Instead, try:“I hate it when I feel down, so I can’t even imagine what you’re going through”
  • “Just choose to be happy, your life is great!”
    Depression can happen to people who have wonderful lives. In fact, it often does. It can be hardest for the person experiencing depression to understand why they feel so awful when life should be great. They don’t need to be reminded of this. Also, if being happy was just a choice they could make, believe me, they would! Positive thinking helps, but sometimes choosing to be happy is not enough.Instead, try:“Life is really hard right now. But I know it will get better, and I’m here to support you.”

The best thing you can do for your loved one with depression? Don’t give up on them. Be there. Be someone they can cry to, sit with, and count on. Try to be patient. They will often do or say things that are out of character, which can be tough. But know that they’re doing their best. Get them help if they need it. Ask questions. Admit if you don’t know what to do, but reassure the person that you’ll figure it out together. Depression is treatable! Having a support system is a huge part of recovery. Just by being there for someone, you are doing more than you ever could with your words.

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