Wednesday, November 20, 2019

What Not To Say To A Person Experiencing Depression

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It only takes a brief look at some of the facts and figures about depression to see just how serious a problem it is in the present day. High-profile cases certainly help keep the issue in the public eye, and the growing awareness of mental health issues is a positive thing. With that said, we’re still very much in the early days when it comes to treating mental health like its physical counterpart, and when it comes to understanding mental illness, even the most well-meaning person can find the way forward is littered with pitfalls and false starts.

Depression, in particular, is a very easy condition to misunderstand, which can make it harder to treat. While physical illnesses can be studied in laboratories, and their treatments tested in controlled conditions, depression often doesn’t behave as people expect it to. No matter how benign someone’s intentions may be, it is all too easy to say the wrong thing to someone who is struggling with depression. Here are some of the most common faux pas, and things to avoid saying, when talking about this frustrating condition.

“This will pass”

When seeking to reassure someone with depression, it’s completely understandable that so many of us reach for this statement. It’s an optimistic thing to say and, seemingly, has the advantage of being true. In the vast majority of cases, someone struggling through a depressive episode will come out the other side appreciating their improvement. However, when you’re in the midst of an episode, it’s a statement that can grate all too easily. Often, someone with depression won’t want to hear about a future they have difficulty envisaging.

What to say instead: Often, nothing at all. Be prepared to listen and sympathize. Give the person a chance to talk about anything that animates them.

“What are you depressed about?”

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So many people fundamentally misunderstand depression as being a reaction to life circumstances, and expect that by pointing out the positives in someone’s life they can make them feel better. This is particularly the case when talking to a young person who may need teen depression treatment and a listening ear. People with depression are rarely depressed about something, and it is entirely possible to seemingly be in a great position in life - with money, friends and great future prospects - and yet still feel empty.

What to say instead: “Take the time you need to feel better. You don’t deserve this and you are loved.”

“You know, what helped me when I was in your place was…”

Even people who have experienced their own periods and episodes of depression can be prone to saying the wrong thing when trying to help a friend or family member. With the best will in the world, someone in the midst of a serious depressive episode is not going to want to hear what worked for someone else. Quite apart from anything, depression is not like a lock with a definite key that will always work. It’s a complicated condition, and by talking about our own experience it’s all too easy to come across as making this thing about us.

What to say instead: “I’m here to listen if you want to talk. And if you don’t want to talk about it, I’m still here.”

“You don’t seem/look depressed!”

As with many other misconceptions about depression, this one falls back on the assumption that depression and unhappiness are the same thing; an understandable mistake, but an error nonetheless. Someone with depression will not necessarily present with the exterior that people would expect. Indeed, it’s common to hear people mention that someone is “the last person in the world I’d expect to be depressed”. A person can be smiling, even laughing one moment and within seconds be feeling lost and alone. It only makes matters worse when someone then makes the above comment, which can only ever sound like “I don’t believe you - you’re not depressed, you’re making things up.”

What to say instead: “I’m so sorry, I had no idea. You give off such positivity that I never would have guessed - if you need to unburden now I’m right here.”

“You need to focus on the positive”

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While thankfully few people these days would be as tin-eared as to say “Snap out of it” to a person with depression, there are a few statements which will sound every bit as harsh to someone in the midst of an episode. A major aspect of depression is anhedonia - the inability to take pleasure in what would usually be pleasurable activities. Telling a depressed person to “focus on the positive” is like telling someone with a fracture to magically heal that bone. Worse yet, the instruction to focus on something else is victim-blaming and insinuates that their problems are irrelevant to you.

What to say instead: “I’m sorry you’re hurting right now. Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I thought this was over…”

Depression is not a condition that has a specific beginning and a definite end, and sometimes a person who has been suffering will show a major improvement, and seem totally rejuvenated. This can be as a result of therapy, medication or a combination - or even completely out of the blue. It can then be distressing to see them fall back under the shadow of depression, but this is something that happens. The path of a person with depression, even in the best of scenarios, is often more of a zig-zag than a straight line. By telling someone that we had considered the bad times to be over, it’s implicit that we’re disappointed in them for not being cured.

What to say instead: “You’ve come a long way, and I believe in you. It’s natural to have days like these, don’t beat yourself up.”

Although our awareness and understanding of depression has improved immeasurably in recent years, it is a persistent condition that can devastate lives and it attacks people by taking away the resources they would usually use to fight it. If you’re helping someone through a depressive period right now, remember that it’s often by just being there that you’ll make the biggest difference. Take care!


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