Depression, like any mental illness, is challenging to understand from the outside. Perhaps this is why it too often gets mistaken for sadness. Medical depression, however, runs so much deeper. As Ned Vizzini explained, “I didn’t want to wake up. I was having a much better time asleep. And that’s really sad. It was almost like a reverse nightmare, like when you wake up from a nightmare you’re so relieved. I woke up into a nightmare.”
Depression is an unusual kind of darkness.
Often we don’t know what to say, so we try to relate from our own experiences with feeling sad. Although our intentions may be good, the impact on our depressed loved one is rarely helpful.
Here are five things we say to depressed people that are unkind, unhelpful, and even ignorant:
1. Happiness is a choice.
How would you feel if a person who was born into lavish wealth told you that poverty was a choice? Well, that statement is wrong – and offensive – for the same reasons as this one. Yes, there are choices we can make that increase or decrease our happiness. However, we also start out at wildly different places, due to genetics and uncontrollable life events. A person who is struggling with a medical case of depression cannot think their way into happiness. For them, the road will be much longer and more difficult. They may require cognitive behavioral therapy or medication. To compare a depressed person’s journey to happiness with that of a typical person is deeply unfair.
2. Life is hard for everyone. Look at Bob – he has it way worse than you, and he’s handling things just fine.
The clear implication here is that Bob must be working harder, caring more, or just inherently better. This thinking is not helpful to a person who likely already struggles with their self-worth. It also ignores the fact that life is so much more complicated than what we see on the surface. It’s impossible to compare the difficulty of two lives when we are missing decades of complex biological and situational information. It’s also not productive.
3. Get out of bed and put a smile on your face. Be strong for your partner/kids/parents.
This statement is unkind and dismissive. It implies that your friend’s mental health is not as important as the comfort of those around them. At best, this will encourage a depressed person to bottle up their feelings – a mental health practice so toxic it can cause physical harm. Empathy may be a slower motivator than fear and shame, but its results run much deeper. They also last longer and feel better.
4. This depression is all in your head. Have you tried thinking more positively?
Positive thinking is a great tool for improving your self-esteem and world view. Unfortunately, it is not a cure for depression. Depression is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain. Although tools like mindfulness, self-care, and spirituality can be beneficial for those with depression – and everyone else – they are by no means a cure for it. This thinking is dangerous because it blames the patient themselves for an illness they’d never choose.
5. This has gone on long enough. It’s time for you to snap out of it.
Wow, why didn’t your depressed friend think of just “snapping out of it”? Clearly, this would be a great solution – if it worked. Unfortunately, nothing about this thought makes sense. Depression is a medical illness. You can’t “snap out of it” any more than you could snap out of diabetes. To imply that you could is to say that depression is a lifestyle decision. I can assure you, if it were, it would be a much less popular one.
So, what does your loved one with depression need to hear from you?
It’s simpler than you think. They just want to know that you love them and that you’re around if they need you.
As Leo Buscaglia wrote, “Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”