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.
Photo credit: Thinkstock.