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When someone you care about is suffering from depression, you want to do something that will make it all better. But here’s what people with depression want you to know: They know you mean well with the pep talks and the movie tickets to the latest rom-com but, the fact is, there is nothing you can do or say that will “snap” them out of depression.
Instead, just listen. Be sympathetic. Don’t belittle and don’t lose patience. And if you fear a person might harm themselves, get them help.
“If a person has cancer, people rally to their side,” says Matthew Stanford , Ph.D., professor of psychology and neuroscience at Baylor University . In the same way, “people with depression also need to know they are not alone.”
No one chooses to feel depressed. Depression is a brain disorder that affects nearly 1 in 10 Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (more common in women than men, in the unemployed than the employed and in African Americans and Hispanics). To feel better, Stanford says a person needs three things: Support from friends and family, psychotherapy that retrains the brain how to perceive the world and medication that corrects chemical imbalances that make life seem so dark.
“I’d say supportive care is the most important of the three,” says Stanford. “If they don’t have supportive care, the likelihood of them getting better is pretty minimal.”
Because there’s a good chance someone you know is battling this condition, here are some things to say -- and never to say -- that can help you give that person the support she needs.
Do sympathize. If someone confides in you about their depression, the best thing to say is, “That must be so hard. I can’t even imagine what it’s like,” says Psychologist Deborah Serani, Ph.D., author of Living with Depression . “Don’t try to fix it; instead, just understand it and offer support,” says Serani.
Do be positive. When Michele Howe, 51, of LaSalle, Mich., was battling depression, words from a friend gave her the greatest comfort: “I know you don’t believe you’ll get through this, but I’m going to believe for you, and in you, until you can turn this around.”
Do show affection. “I love you and I’m here for you” helped Janet Summers, 23, of Brooklyn when she was at her darkest point.
Do ask if you’re doing or saying anything that isn’t helpful. The answer might surprise you. In her practice, Serani often hears that it’s the little things: impatience, body language, or an eye roll that make a person with depression feel worse.
Do ask for guidance. “What can I do to make it better?” Maybe what your loved one needs more than anything is a hug, a listening ear or hand to hold while at the doctor’s office.
Don’t ignore it. “I really wish someone had asked me how I was feeling,” says Eileen Wolter, 40, of New York. “I wish someone had said they could tell I was deeply unhappy and fragile and that they wanted to help me get help.”
Don’t begin sentences with, “Maybe you need to...” “People would tell me, ‘Maybe you need to get out and move around a bit more,’” says Serani, who battled depression herself. “Like I never thought of that. It’s patronizing and makes most of us angry when we’re in a depressed state. Things that are instructive instead of empathetic end up being hurtful rather than helpful.”
Don’t talk about who has it worse. Comments such as, “Look how great your life is” or “So many people are worse off than you are” aren’t helpful and instead can make people feel guilty for the emotions they’re having.
Don’t be afraid to ask the scary questions. Has the depression deepened? Is your loved one talking about ways the world would be better without her around? Is she giving away possessions, refusing to talk about future plans or getting financial and legal affairs in order? If so, ask her if she’s thought about harming herself. And if the answer is yes (or you just strongly suspect it is), call her mental health professional or bring her to the emergency room. Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and 35,000 people took their own life in 2007 . “This is not the time to worry about your friend or your family member being angry,” says Serani. “Do whatever you need to do to get that person safe.”