What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone with Depression

“If you know someone who’s depressed, please resolve never to ask them why. Depression isn’t a straightforward response to a bad situation; depression just is, like the weather.

Try to understand the blackness, lethargy, hopelessness, and loneliness they’re going through. Be there for them when they come through the other side. It’s hard to be a friend to someone who’s depressed, but it is one of the kindest, noblest, and best things you will ever do.”
– Stephen Fry

We all know what depression can feel like, but in extreme cases, it can be prove hard to help people who suffer from it. 

And while you may be well-intentioned, some phrases or actions can worsen the symptoms of depression rather than contribute to the healing process.

Read on to learn about the main things you should avoid saying to a person suffering from depression and how you can help them get better instead:

1. Refrain from telling them to cheer up

If curing depression was as simple as telling someone to “cheer up”, the world would be a much happier place. But sadly, telling someone to do so can often do more harm than good.

Here are some phrases you should avoid using when talking to someone with depression:

“Cheer up”
“Be positive”
“You should laugh more”
“Get yourself together”

Leela R. Magavi, MD, a psychiatrist and regional medical director at Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California says:

“Reciting platitudes and inundating the conversation with toxic positivity could exacerbate the feelings of guilt and shame that individuals with depression already combat on a day-to-day basis.”

Rather than trying to push them into being more positive, try doing the following:

  • Show them empathy
  • Spend time together
  • Guide them towards opening up about their feelings
  • Tell them they are needed

2. Do not minimize their feelings

If someone with depression confides in you about their suffering, it is of vital importance that you listen without judgment. Here are some of the things you should avoid saying in this case:

“You seem fine to me, I haven’t noticed a change”
“It’s just in your head”
“I’ve had worse things happen to me”

If you brush off their experiences as being no big deal, they may avoid opening up to you in the future and start criticizing themselves even more.

According to Gail Saltz, MD, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the NY Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, they need to be reminded of the following:

  • It is not their fault
  • You feel for them
  • They can get better with the right help
  • They can count on you

3. Do not put the blame on them

Normally, depression comes as a consequence of factors outside of a person’s own control, such as genetics, abuse, poverty, stress, and brain function.

Saying things like “You wouldn’t be depressed if you did this..” or “It is no one’s fault but yours that you feel this way” puts unnecessary blame on a person who is already suffering.

Magavi believes:

“This could lead to demoralization and feelings of helplessness. Depressed individuals can feel like social outcasts, and consequently, the knowledge that someone who supposedly loves them may perceive them negatively could lead to self-injury and suicidal thoughts or attempts. I have evaluated children and adults who have stopped eating and getting out of bed entirely subsequent to a painful conversation with a loved one.”

Blaming someone for their depression can do a lot of unwanted damage to their psyche. Hence, they need to be reminded that having depression is not their fault and does not make them less of a person and that they can count on you no matter what.

4. Do not shame them

Helping someone treat their depression can be a challenge, but it is crucial not to get frustrated in the process. Using the following phrases will only make them feel worse:

“You’re only thinking about yourself”
“You’re being crazy”
“Stop and think about how this is affecting those around you”

Anjani Amladi, MD, a psychiatrist in Sacramento, California says:

“A common misconception is that people with depression are selfish when in reality, it’s quite the opposite. People living with depression care deeply about other people and the impact they have on their lives. They often experience guilt about being depressed, feel like they are a burden, and often blame themselves for not being able to feel better.”

According to Saltz, the following chastisements can put a person suffering from depression in extreme danger:

“Shaming, stigmatizing, and guilting a depressed person is likely to worsen their depression. Suicide is a major concern in depression, and shame is often associated with suicide.” 

If you suspect that a loved one’s depression might have reached a boiling point, do not hesitate to seek professional help at once.

We hope this article was of help to you. Let us know your thoughts on the topic by joining the conversation in the comments and please share if you’ve enjoyed the read.

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