What to Say to Someone With Depression—or Not Say

If you're unsure how to support friends or family dealing with depression, here's how to approach the conversation from a loving, caring place.

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It can be tricky to know what to say to someone with depression, even with the stigma around mental health declining. 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).

When someone close to you is going through something that’s more than just a difficult day, it’s important to know how best to support them—including what not to say—to help them through it. Here, mental health experts share thoughtful tips for helping someone with depression.

How to Approach People About Depression

Before you can offer support or help, you need to know how best to approach someone with depression. You'll need to be prepared and understanding. Here are some things to consider.

Acknowledge your discomfort, then put it aside.

Many people find it incredibly awkward to reach out to someone who has depression, 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, Dorfman adds. You can even be honest and let the person know you're pushing past the awkwardness because you care about them.

Remember, you’re not expected to be their therapist.

Though well-intentioned, providing advice or suggestions is not your priority in this situation. 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 ($17, barnesandnoble.com). Leave the therapy work for the professionals.

Pick a good time for the conversation.

The space and time you choose to approach a friend with depression are 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 happening.

"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 or loved one who might be depressed, you're probably thinking about what to say. But here's where you should 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 concern 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 prominent 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.

Offer your presence.

Conveying a sense of neutrality and non-judgment is key, says Dorfman. Sometimes a person with depression 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 happening, 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 therapist, come with them to a therapy appointment, or talk to another loved one about it.

Embrace 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 belief 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 their actions give you a reason to suspect they do (i.e., they’re acting more recklessly or giving away possessions), you should not leave that person alone. Call for help from a mental health professional or a suicide hotline (dial 988) as soon as possible. “Even if they resist it [at] the moment, it’s a forgivable act when it’s with the motivation of being supportive and protective,” Dorfman explains.

What Not to Do or Say When Someone Has Depression

Now that you know how best to approach someone with depression and what to say, it's important to also know what not to say—or do. Here are some things to avoid.

Disappear on them.

Many times, people are so afraid they'll say the wrong thing to a friend who is 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. You want to remain in contact so they don't feel alone.

Use unhelpful or dismissive phrases.

Depressive feelings can occur regardless of a person’s objective successes, good fortune, or other seemingly positive attributes. Avoid phrases such as “Things will get better” or “I know how you feel” in conversations with people who have depression.

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. 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 personal experiences of feeling depressed (if you’ve had them).

But there’s a delicate balance here: The goal is to expose your 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.

Treat it like an intervention.

When talking to a loved one who is depressed, let them 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, open conversation.

Providing Continued 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: To be someone who can connect them to help. Like other medical conditions, the sooner someone gets help, the faster their improvement will be, Dorfman says.

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