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How to Talk to a Depressed Person: What to Say and How to Help

How to Talk to a Depressed Person: What to Say and How to Help

If you know someone who has depression, you might have found yourself at a loss for what to say. You might even fear that if you say the wrong thing, you could make it worse. As someone who has depression, I can tell you that you’ve already done something brilliant: you care enough to want to help.

To help you help the people you care about, here are some tips for talking to a depressed person.

1. Please Don’t Ask What’s Wrong  Because I Don’t Know. Instead, Just Be There

When someone is in pain, you want to find out what’s wrong with them — it’s only natural. The thing about clinical depression, though, is that, even though there might be a trigger event, the actual depressive episode can happen for no recognizable reason at all.

Asking someone “What’s wrong?” actually emphasizes how arbitrary the depression is. As someone who suffers depression, I can tell you that I know that there may be no concrete reason for me to be depressed. Life can be absolutely wonderful, and yet here I am in the smog of my own bad feelings. That actually can make people who are depressed feel worse.

Instead, it’s enough to just let someone know that you are there for them. Not having to go through depression alone can really help to lessen the pressure a depressed person feels.

Things you might say to a depressed person:

  • I can’t understand what you are going through, but I’m here for you.
  • Please just know that when you need to talk I’m here.
  • If you need space I understand, but please know you can talk to me anytime, day or night.

2. Be There in Person

Over the phone or the Internet it’s easy to put on pretenses, and to minimize how you are feeling. For this reason, if at all possible put down the phone or turn off the laptop and go and actually see the depressed person. This way, you’ll get a better picture of how they are feeling, and they will also feel the benefit of having you physically there, even if it’s in another part of the house. Obviously, being there physically isn’t always possible, and any contact at all can help.

3. Give Validation

This is one of the rare times when getting validation from someone else is helpful and healthy.

As mentioned above, depressed people often know that their feelings are disproportionate to the actual situation they’re in — and that fact can be incredibly hurtful. It creates a vicious cycle whereby a person becomes more depressed because they feel depressed for no apparent reason, and so on.

Having someone sit down with you and validate those feelings as something that is real and not something for which you are being judged can help to take the pressure off. It also increases the trust between you, which in turn may help the depressed person reach out at an earlier stage to tell you they are falling into a depressive episode. This can, but not always, mean that early intervention is possible.

How to give meaningful validation:

  • I would never judge you for being depressed. I understand it’s outside of your control, and I’m here to help if I can.
  • Whatever you are feeling, I’m here to listen and help.

4. Ask If You Can Help and Do So Meaningfully

This sounds simple, but it’s a step many people overlook. Rather than trying to help, ask how you can help in the first place. Often, there will be nothing you can do, but this is a way of letting the person know that they are not alone and that you really are listening to them and not just trying to placate them.

A key thing is to be specific about ways in which you can help. When depression strikes, life can be overwhelming. If you can offer to do the grocery shopping for someone, for example, that can be a massive help.

Other things you might be able to help with:

  • Anything that involves going into public places.
  • Booking a doctor’s appointment on behalf of someone.
  • Helping with general chores.
  • Helping to ensure the depressed person is eating properly and taking care of themselves.

5. Don’t be Afraid to Have a Laugh

Given that a lot of this advice has been to take depression seriously, this might seem strange, but if you and the person that is depressed generally have a good time together, it is okay to try to distract them from their feelings by offering them a number of diversions. This doesn’t always work, so it will require sensitivity on your part to feel out whether this is an appropriate time for that kind of intervention.

Ways you can help:

  • Ask if the person would like to do a low key activity with you, like watching films or playing a computer game. This gives you the chance to monitor how they feel while giving them something to do that isn’t listen to the constant negativity in their heads.
  • Some studies have shown that physical activity can help mild depressive symptoms, so a walk out in nature while chatting about good times might be beneficial in some cases.
  • Don’t force positivity on someone, though. Sometimes, they have to simply navigate their way through the episode. When this happens, offer a fun activity they might want to do when they’re feeling better. Knowing that they have something to look forward to can, sometimes, help ease the sense of doom and there being no light at the end of the tunnel.

6. Look After Yourself to Look After Someone Else

My final tip is that taking care of other people is a wonderful thing, but you can’t take care of someone if you are running yourself into the ground trying to be there for them. Better yet, make sure you share the responsibility of care with other friends or family members so that you can get time for yourself.

As a final note, it is important to stress that the above can apply to all types of depression but will probably be most effective for light/moderate depressive symptoms. If you feel that someone in your life is suffering from a serious and possibly life-threatening depressive episode, the symptoms of which you can find here and here, it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

The good news is that with proper medical intervention, and people like you who are willing to help in this difficult situation, depressive episodes can and do pass, and many people can live happy lives while managing their condition.

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Photo credit: Thinkstock.

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106 comments

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9:12AM PDT on Jun 20, 2014

Thanks!This article is really helping!

8:06PM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Gerald: Thanks for your response. "Proper medical intervention" doesn't necessarily mean pumping down meds BUT some people do need meds either because other options are not there or some options have been tried and failed. My comment was meant to warn against untimely pep talks and didn't refer to the subject of meds. That said, some of your suggestions sound good to me.

3:44PM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

On the lighter side tonight;

Make 'Em Laugh
Almost everyone loves a good laugh, but it's about more than just getting a chuckle or making someone smile. The Agenda explores the art, science and benefits of humour.

Guests:

Scott Weems, Cognitive Neuroscientist & Author, "Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why"

Eva Pea, Founder, Zeds Comic Communication

Kenny Robinson, Stand-up Comic & Founder, Nubian Disciples All Black Comedy Revue

Carolyn Bennett, Stand-up Comic & Writer, Air Farce, This Hour Has 22 Minutes & The NHL Awards

This is Your Brain on Humour
Cognitive neuroscientist Scott Weems is the author of "Ha! The Science of When We Laugh and Why." He's joined by stand-up comics Kenny Robinson and Carolyn Bennett as well as comedy coach Eva Pea of Zeds Comic Communication to discuss humour's cultural and gender divides and how our brains process "funny".

Peter McGraw: Humour Decoded
Peter McGraw, co-author of "The Humor Code," traveled the globe in an attempt to scientifically verify his Benign Violation Theory of comedy. The theory states that for a joke to be funny it must contain a violation - something wrong, threatening or disruptive - and at the same time be benign - playful, safe or otherwise okay. He joins Steve Paikin for more on his theory.

All episodes of The Agenda with Steve Paikin are available on-demand in streaming video and audio and video podcasts at http://theagenda.tvo.org/podcasts.

12:19PM PDT on Jun 19, 2014

Hugs help, so does wearing your favourite coloured clothing and doing your favourite things. My best beat the depression tip is to have full spectrum lighting and sit under it as long as possible. Daylight bulbs work great too. The worst thing for me is when people try to get me to go outside when I can't stop crying.

9:46PM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

cont'd; I volunteer with injured workers whose cup is empty because of In$urance companie$ squeezing them into poverty. I do validate their horrible experiences, and sadly many times the negativity is from family members, co-workers, employers, and corporate w____ physicians.

As Gloria stated many times there's no 1/2 & 1/2! Stigma and biased negative judgement can be the worst enemy to hurting people.

9:44PM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

@ Liliana G; Gerald: I'm sure you mean well BUT forcing positivity on a depressed, really depressed person can be risky. Why?

Liliana we all have our own ways at the moment we are trying to encourage someone. I might tease them, asking if they are a sun worshipper. Then try and pump them up to rise up and face the days challenges irregardless of the weather. When I was 16 I worked in the rainforest area of British Columbia. In Ontario our employers were responsible to supply us rain gear, and we generally shut the job down for the day. There you bought your own to make a living. You worked in the rain or did not survive.

Wettest Places in Canada
http://www.currentresults.com/Weather-Extremes/Canada/wettest.php
Port Alice 134.9" 3427 millimeters

I had visited a previous Ontario neighbour on the rainforest coast who was involved with paper mill unions in the 60's where they had to encourage the Employers to pay for psychiatric care for employees families for depression. I came to the conclusion at a young age that being a weather worshipper was not good for the emotions. I have seen peoples faces light up when they grasp that concept.

Saying it's forcing positivity may be a lot safer than forcing prescriptions. Steve's statement; Having someone sit down with you and validate those feelings as something that is real and not something for which you are being judged can help to take the pressure off. I volunteer with injured workers whose cup is empty because of I

5:17AM PDT on Jun 18, 2014

Thank you so much, Steve, this article is really helping! And, thank you to all who gave helpful advices, Gloria, Rosemary, Liliana, etc. It feels good to know.

1:07PM PDT on Jun 17, 2014

Gerald: I'm sure you mean well BUT forcing positivity on a depressed, really depressed person can be risky. Why? Because the person is already feeling low and through that pep talk they can feel foolish and weak, one more straw on a badly bruised self esteem. Please reread Steve's article and Gloria's post. The article has very good suggestions on how to really help out.

9:49AM PDT on Jun 17, 2014

If suffering depression, if you are a weather forecast junkie, stop it! Oh it's going to rain, downward spiral of mood. Try and do a reverse thought pattern. Oh rain, the farmers need it's so dry, more snow, the skiers will love that. Hey the shovelling might get you outside, getting some exercise, breathing some fresh air, chatting with the neighbours etc.

About a month ago I heard a 4 day weather report from Grand Marais MN, the radio host needed a bag of happy beans, it was depressing listening to him.

Best advice, get up in the morning and face the perceived days challenges with a positive attitude. Windy today, good sailing weather.

3:45PM PDT on Jun 16, 2014

It's good to support someone in practical ways and not words alone.

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