How to Support a Loved One Dealing With Depression (Including What Not to Say)
The stigma around mental health conversations is slowly waning, but it can still be tricky to know what to say when someone is depressed. Chances are, one of your loved ones will experience depression at some point.
More than 264 million people worldwide are affected by depression, according to the World Health Organization, and the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 17.3 million adults in the U.S. have had at least one major depressive episode (that’s 7 percent of the adult population). And the number is slightly higher for women (8.7 percent) compared to men (5.3 percent).
When someone close to you is going through something that’s more than just a difficult day, it’s important to know what to say (and what not to say) in order to help them through it. Here, mental health experts share thoughtful tips on how to help a friend with depression.
How to Approach Them
Acknowledge your own discomfort, then put it aside.
Many people find it incredibly awkward to approach someone who’s depressed, but it’s important to put those feelings aside to truly help them. “Tolerating your own awkwardness and discomfort so that you’re able to approach the person can be very helpful,” says Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City. Acknowledging to yourself that, yes, you feel uncomfortable, but you care enough about the person to proceed anyway is a useful first step, she adds.
Remember, you’re not expected to be their therapist.
Going into a difficult conversation, however, remember that it’s not your job to be that person’s therapist—it’s your job to help them by connecting them to help, says Andrea Bonior, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C., and the author of Detox Your Thoughts: Quit Negative Self-Talk for Good and Discover the Life You've Always Wanted.
Time it very intentionally.
The space and time for which you choose to approach a friend struggling with depression is equally important. Be mindful of picking the right opportunity to strike up a conversation, where you’ll have privacy and enough time to address what’s going on.
“Don’t do it at a time where the person could feel ambushed, when they have someplace to be, or when they’ve disappointed you,” Bonior says. “For example, after they’ve said they’re not coming to your party—otherwise, they might feel like you’re criticizing them and get defensive.”
The Best Things to Say and Ask When Someone's Depressed
Once you’ve determined it’s the right opportunity to approach a friend who might be depressed, you’re probably thinking next about what, exactly, to say. But here’s where you need to take a step back: “You need to go in listening,” Bonior says. “It’s just as important to think about how to listen to them as it is to think about what you’re going to say.”
Come from a place of genuine love and concern—not judgment or pity.
Frame your message from the perspective of your being concerned, rather than there being something “wrong” with the person.
Asking an open-ended question to kick-start a conversation, such as “I’ve noticed you don’t seem like yourself lately; is there anything going on?” can be enough to get the person talking. You can also use similar versions of this question, such as “I’ve noticed you’re not wanting to go out as much as you used to; is everything OK?” or “I noticed you seem less energetic—what’s up?”
Let them know you plan to check in.
A central symptom of depression is the feeling of being alone. So even if your loved one is not particularly communicative or doesn’t want to talk about the situation, simply saying you’re going to check in tomorrow—and asking if that’s OK with them—is a way to offer ongoing support and availability. Often, people may reject an initial approach, then come around to it later, so don’t give up.
Simply offer your presence.
Conveying a sense of neutrality and non-judgment here is key, says Dorfman. Sometimes a person who is depressed won’t feel like talking, but they’ll find comfort in knowing people care. Sometimes that takes the form of physical presence, simply being in the same room with them. You might ask, “Is it OK if I come to hang out with you? We don’t have to talk; I’ll just be there.” Communicating your ability to tolerate their feelings and experience is one way to show your support, adds Dorfman.
Ask open-ended questions.
If the person is willing to open up about what’s going on, continue with open-ended questions as much as possible. If the person says they are struggling, respond by asking, “How can I help?” If they aren’t sure how to answer that, you can offer to do things such as help them look for a great therapist, come with them to a therapy appointment, or talk to another loved one about it.
Don’t shy away from the hard stuff.
One question many people avoid, but shouldn’t, is asking the person whether they’ve thought about hurting themselves. People worry about suicide contagion—the idea that you will plant the idea in someone’s head by asking about it—but there’s no research showing this to be true, Bonior says. If a person does admit to having suicidal feelings, or you have reason to suspect they have based on their actions (i.e., they’re acting more reckless or giving away possessions), you should not leave that person alone. Call for help from a mental health professional or a suicide hotline as soon as possible. “Even if they resist it in the moment, it’s a forgivable act when it’s with the motivation of being supportive and protective,” Dorfman says.
What Not to Do or Say When Someone Has Depression
Don’t ghost them.
Many times, people are so afraid they’ll say the wrong thing to a friend who’s depressed that they won’t say anything at all—and this is actually the worst thing you can do, says Bonior. When a friend is dealing with depression, the wrong thing to do is to disappear.
Avoid unhelpful or dismissive phrases.
That said, there are some phrases to avoid in a conversation, such as “things will get better” or “I know how you feel.” Anything that implies dismissing, minimizing or invalidating their feelings—like “What are you sad about? You have so much to be happy for!” or “But you’re so lucky, you shouldn’t feel that way”—comes across as insensitive and dismissive. The truth is that depressive feelings can occur regardless of a person’s objective successes, good fortune, or other seemingly positive attributes.
While you shouldn’t use phrases like “I understand how you feel,” since that’s nearly impossible, another way to show your support for a depressed loved one is to share your own personal experiences of feeling depressed (if you’ve had them). But there’s a delicate balance here: The goal is to expose your own vulnerability without presuming your experiences are identical. “People find extraordinary validation in knowing they’re not alone, and that their feelings are more common than they think,” Dorfman says.
Never treat it like an intervention.
When talking to a loved one who is depressed, let him or her drive the conversation to where it needs to go. “Too often people go into the conversation with an agenda, but they’re missing the most important point—which is to see where that person is at and go from there,” says Bonior. It shouldn’t be an inquisition or intervention, but a safe, curious, and open conversation.
Continue to Be a Pillar of Support
Lending a listening ear, or just being physically present with them, without barraging them with solutions, is the most caring and supportive way to be there for someone going through depression. Remember your role as a person who can connect them to help: Just like with other medical conditions, Dorfman says, the sooner someone gets help, the faster their improvement will be.
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