Anyone who has a loved one who struggles with depression probably knows the feeling of trying to help them but having it seem like everything you say either falls on deaf ears or just makes things worse can leave you at a loss. I hadn’t experienced this feeling until about a year ago when a good friend of mine fell into a deep depression that was pretty uncharacteristic for them. I tried to be compassionate, cheer them up, and tell them I understood, give helpful suggestions—anything that would help them suffer a little bit less. I was at a loss and hated feeling so useless.
And then it hit me: I've been making people feel this way on a regular basis for years throughout my own frequent and often severe bouts with depression. I had countless family members, friends, mentors, and Church leaders trying to say something that would somehow help, who were often left feeling helpless. Depression causes you to see the world in a messed up way. This is why you might feel like you're not "getting through"—you are dealing with somebody who has a totally different perception of reality than you do.
I don't know if your depressed loved one is very much like me, but I would imagine they are at least a little bit like me, and I hope that what helps me will be able to help them. I am in no way trying to generalize the feelings, situation, or needs of people who suffer from depression or any other mental difficulty. Everybody will respond differently to different things, but here are a few suggestions to get you started.
1. Don't say: You don't really have it that bad.
Instead, try: I wish I better understood what you are dealing with.
Never, ever, minimize emotional suffering. Is it possible that they are just a little bit insecure and fishing for attention? Sure. But it's also possible (and more likely) that they are not exaggerating any of their feelings or being dishonest about their perceived circumstances. Being dismissive about what they are experiencing is likely to make them feel even more distant from the people and the experiences that have the potential to be relieving to them.
2. Don't say: Count your blessings!
Instead, try: That festival (or vacation or museum or amusement park or whatever) that you went to on Saturday—what was your favorite part?
I'm so tired of people telling me to count my blessings. It got old about five years ago. But I know that a happy heart is a grateful heart and that recognizing the good in life can help your depressed loved one tip their “outlook on life” scales back to balanced. The trick is to make it organic. When someone tells me to count my blessings, what I hear is, “I'm tired of talking to you, so I'm just going to say something that sounds good that I've probably never done myself.” But when I'm engaged in a natural discussion about the events of my life, I am able to think about and sort out positive things in a way that feels real.
3. Don't say: You should go for a walk.
Instead, try: I'm going to go feed the ducks at the park after work. You're on my way. Can I pick you up?
Would a walk make your depressed loved one feel better? Could they benefit from the exercise and the vitamin D? Probably, but they don't care. Other things they don't feel like doing are working in the garden, painting a picture, or going to look at the puppies in the pet shop. These are things that healthy-minded people enjoy, but people with depression often lose interest in such activities. But you're right—they do need to get out of the house. So make it easy for them. Pick them up; do something you know they enjoy. But don't give the impression that you're going out of your way for them. Just act like you were doing it anyway, and make it easy for them to join you.
4. Don't say: You should read Proverbs 3:5-6.
Instead, try: I was feeling pretty bummed the other day and I came across a scripture that really helped me. Can I tell you about it?
I really don't like it when people prescribe me scriptures to read that are supposed to make me feel better, because I usually already know them. But what your depressed loved one doesn’t know is the experience of others. This gives the opportunity for the Spirit to testify of things that the heart needs to hear. This principle applies with anything you may find inspirational (quotes, documentaries, books, works of art), and not just religious text.
5. Don't say: Things will get better.
Instead, try: Can I tell you about something that happened to me? (That something being a time you experienced relief from a period of hopelessness or despair.)
I've become so calloused to people telling me that “things will get better,” (especially because things haven't been getting better). This has less to do with depression and more to do with my situation in life, but I still think it's relevant. However, I like hearing about how people have overcome hopeless or desperate situations. This little bit of “evidence” can be just the hope I need to move forward.
6. Don't say: Let me know if there's something I can do to help.
Instead, try: What can I do to help? Anything at all.
When you feel like a crazy person, it's hard to ask for help. It's not as simple as “Can we use your truck to pick up my new fridge?” It's more like, “Can you help me try to fix everything that's wrong about me that I don't even fully understand myself?” It's awkward to ask for help because you don't really know what you need; you just know that you're not okay. It can really benefit your depressed loved one to help them understand that they are not annoying you or inconveniencing you by asking for help—you really do mean it. Offering specific ways you can help is even better—again, sometimes your depressed loved one may not even know themselves what exactly is wrong and how to fix it.
7. Don’t say: You need to serve someone.
Instead, try: I’m having trouble in my calculus course, and I know you’re good at math. Can you help me with a few problems?
This is along the same lines as “you should take a walk,” but I felt it deserved its own special category because of its frequency. Helping others can do a world of good for your depressed loved one, but it can be hard for them to perceive that, making it difficult to find the motivation to serve. Expressing confidence in their ability and presenting them with an immediate and simple way to serve is a great way to reach in and pull them out of their depressed thought patterns.
8. Don’t say: You should pray.
Instead, try: Will you pray with me?
Of course they should pray. They probably know this but feel distanced and maybe even abandoned by God. Maybe they feel like their prayers go unanswered. Efforts to compel your depressed loved one to be “more spiritual” will likely be fruitless. But what you can do is warmly invite them into spiritual situations. When you ask them to pray with you, make it clear that you need the prayer and are looking for support. Ask them if they would be okay with saying it, but if not, be happy to do it.
9. And please, please, please don't ever say: Smile!
Instead, try: Want to go get ice cream cones?
Nobody ever appreciates being told to “smile!” When you tell someone to “smile,” you may as well be saying, “Please just deal with whatever is bothering you quietly and alone.” Instead, ask your depressed loved one if they want an ice cream cone, because everybody appreciates free ice cream cones.
The reason it is so hard to communicate with your depressed loved one is that their perception of reality is off. What seems obvious to you might seem like a fantasy to them. I know this is frustrating, and I know you don't understand. Even if you have experienced depression yourself, it affects everyone differently.
But even if you feel like you're not “getting through,” please don't stop trying. Chances are that one day, your depressed loved one will feel better, and you will both be so grateful you stood by them when they get to that point.
For those of you who have found success in communicating with your depressed loved one, what has worked for you? What needed to change? Or, if you are the depressed love one, what do you wish the people in your life understood a little bit better about you, your circumstances, and how to help you?
Juliet Miller has a B.A. in Women's Studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara and currently works as a community educator throughout southern California. She enjoys teaching, learning, and blogging. She can be reached at Juliet.firstname.lastname@example.org.