You might mean well, but don't say the wrong things.
I was sitting in my men’s group last night when one of the men revealed that he had been suffering from depression and suicidal ideation for the past several weeks. Without prompting, half a dozen of the guys in the room started to rattle off some of the least productive things that you can say to someone with depression.
Their hearts were in the right place — they meant well and they didn’t want their friend to be suffering. But their feedback was missing the mark.
Their words bothered me because people had said similar things to me while I was going through depressive episodes, so I wanted to write down the best and worst things to say to someone struggling with depression. If you want to learn how to help someone with depression, do not say these things.
1. “You just need more sunlight! You should exercise more! Just let go of your sad thoughts!”
While the intention of giving advice is a loving one, it diminishes the significance of what the person is going through. I don’t doubt that sunlight, exercise, nutrient dense food, and ample deep sleep would make a positive impact on the depressed person’s cortisol levels, but to suggest that doing the thing you’re suggesting will be a magical cure-all is probably missing the point altogether.
2. “Depression isn’t real. It’s all in your head. I’m sad sometimes too, you know.”
Hinting that their depression is something that they can just snap their fingers and walk away from belittles the crippling nature of the disease. If this were true, they would have already done this of their own accord.
3. “There are others who have it a lot worse. You’re so lucky. Your life is going so well compared to most people.”
Again, I get it. You think that you’re contextualizing their pain and reminding them of the good in their world in order to distract them from their depressive thoughts. But reminding them of things to be grateful for is more likely to inspire guilt than to make them feel much better.
It’s their internal dialogue of, “I KNOW I’m supposed to feel better than I do, but I don’t. And it f*cking sucks, and now I feel even worse for feeling like I’m so broken that I can’t even appreciate the good that I intellectually know is in my life” that wreaks havoc in their minds.
Believe me, people struggling with depression don’t usually need to be reminded of what is good in their lives. They’re well aware of it, and they feel guilty for not having the brain chemicals available to them to be able to feel gratitude for those things.
So, what do people struggling with depression need to hear? Here's how to help someone with depression by saying these things.
1. "I love you."
“I love you. I’m here for you. I’m sorry that you’re hurting.”
First and foremost, the person you love who is struggling with depression likely needs to hear that you love them. It’s so easy to hate yourself when you’re depressed because you feel like you’re broken, life is hopeless, and you will never feel happy again.
Hearing that someone else loves you momentarily breaks you out of your psychological spell and reminds you that, yes, other people do in fact care about you.
2. "How can I help?"
“How can I help you? What do you need from me during this difficult time? What can I do to make your life even 1 percent easier?”
Chances are, by the time the depressed person you love reaches out and lets you know that they’re hurting, they’ve been hurting for a while, and they’ve just mustered up the courage to speak to you about it. Doing this is already a huge step for them.
They may very likely feel like they have been carrying a metaphorical elephant on their shoulders, and they need to relieve some of the pressure. Ask them, point blank, “How can I help?” They may not have any ideas because they might feel so beat down and despondent that nothing feels like it could help. So get creative and offer up suggestions.
Do they need you to check in on them on a daily basis? Do they need you to bring them a home cooked meal a few times per week? Do they need you to buy them some new socks/do their laundry/hire a cleaner because they haven’t been able to leave their apartment for a week?
However it is that you can lessen their load, do it. Help them however you can. What might feel like a simple task for you may feel like it’s removing an unfathomably massive load from their shoulders. Or, maybe they don’t need any help via chores or tasks — maybe they just want you to listen. Hear them. Hear their story. Hear what has been going on for them.
“I am available to listen to you if you would like to tell me what’s been going on for you. I won’t make you wrong or tell you what to do. I just want to hear about what you’ve been going through.”
This type of listening is double-y powerful if you have been through depression yourself and you can authentically relate to how heavy their world feels. If you haven’t been through it, don’t pretend to know what it’s like, as this can have the adverse affect of making them feel even more alone and isolated than they already feel.
3. "You matter to me."
When you’re struggling with depression, it feels like you don’t matter in the world. Or, even worse, that the world is f*cked and nothing about it matters. By extension, it’s so easy to feel that your existence is entirely irrelevant that you are of no consequence to humanity.
I personally had one month-long depressive episode within the last year that got so dark that my mind found a way to convince me that the only people in the world who would care about me killing myself were my parents. I repeat: at a time in my life where I had over a million readers per month from around the world, dozens (if not hundreds) of close friends who loved me and checked in on me regularly, and several active clients who I was helping with their personal struggles, my depressed brain found a way to convince me that only two humans would somewhat care about my death.
Because that is how invasive and sneaky depression is. It sneaks into your bones and it feels like it will be forever.
Luckily for me, I had enough support systems in my life that I reached out and asked two of my closest friends to write me lengthy letters promising me that, yes, they would absolutely care if I killed myself. Those letters got me through some of my darkest nights.
So remind the person you love that they matter to you. Tell them exactly why. Tell them what gifts they bring to the world, and to your life. Remind them of all of their glory that you see in them. And then do it again, because people need reminders.
Tell them you love them, ask them how you can help, and tell them that they matter to you. And then repeat. Keep repeating it until you see the light in their eyes slowly start to come back.
In short, people suffering from depression don’t need to be fixed, they need to feel seen, heard, and supported. Don’t tell them what to do, hear them. Be there for them. Love them through their pain, without trying to change or rush what they are feeling.
This article was originally published at Jordan Gray Consulting. Reprinted with permission from the author.