Living with a depressed friend or relative can be frustrating, exhausting, and tricky. Most of the time, you won’t know or understand what’s going on in their head (count yourself lucky!). You won’t understand why they struggle to get up in the morning while you are raring to go. Eventually, you may find yourself becoming increasingly frustrated with what you perceive to be a severe lack of motivation and interest in life. As a result of this frustration, and perhaps out of a sense of helplessness, you may resort to sharing some familiar, overused phrases in hopes of encouraging your depressed friend or family member. While this may seem a helpful and harmless idea at the time, platitudes usually offer little comfort to the depressed.
During my most severe depressive episode, there were four phrases in particular that I found more hurtful than helpful. These statements were shared by different people during various stages of my year-long depression. I do not believe they were said maliciously but rather out of frustration and a general lack of knowledge about depression. Because these statements made me feel worse rather than better, and because I suspect many depressed people may have similar reactions to mine, I thought I would share them in this post. These phrases are not new; I’m certain we have all heard them before. They are typically innocuous to the average person but can prove problematic to the depressed. As a reminder, this information is based solely on my personal opinions and experiences with depression.
Statement 1: Snap out of it!
Many articles discussing depression ask the reader a simple question – would you tell someone with a broken leg to just “walk it off?” As ridiculous as that sounds, this is essentially what you’re doing when you tell a depressed person to just “snap out of it.” While those who have never suffered from depression may assume it’s that easy, I can assure you it is not. If it were, very few of us would experience depression for any prolonged period of time.
I heard this statement, or one of its many variations, frequently during my depressive episode and it only made me feel guilty, hurt and frustrated. The suggestion that I could simply break free from the dreary, black and white world I was living in implied that I was malingering, lazy, and that I somehow could have prevented my depression in the first place. I already felt like a failure and knowing that people thought I could magically escape this mental prison made me feel more guilty about my situation and the negative effect it was having on others. None of these feelings did anything to speed up my recovery. The fact of the matter is there is no “on/off” switch when it comes to depression. Oh how I wish there were!
Statement 2: You should be grateful – there’s always someone worse off than you.
Somewhere, deep inside, most of us know that we are fortunate to have a roof over our head, food on the table, and family and friends who care about us – when we are thinking logically. Therein lies the problem – depression is not a logical disease. While in theory this phrase sounds helpful, the depressed usually have a difficult time recognizing the good around them. It’s hard to count your blessings when you cannot seem to find a purpose to your life. I’m not saying this is a healthy way of thinking or that every depressed person feels this way, but I certainly did. Telling a severely depressed person that they are basically ungrateful is not very productive when that same person is struggling to find a reason to get out of bed in the morning.
Statement 3: You’re just being selfish.
This was always tough to hear. Depression can appear to be a selfish disease, but please understand that it is not an intentional selfishness. Depression robs you of energy, vitality, hope and vision for the future. It is a black fog that completely engulfs your mind, body and spirit. It suffocates any desire to be around other people or to participate in life. You withdraw from family and friends and eventually get lost inside your own head. It is a lonely and isolating disease that by its very nature can make you appear selfish. There were many times after someone shared this statement with me that I wished I could let them live inside my head for just a few minutes. I thought if they could experience this depression firsthand perhaps they would understand that what they perceive as selfishness is actually a symptom of a dark and unrelenting despair.
Statement 4: It’s all in your head.
As the young folk say, “duh!” We know it’s in our head but that doesn’t make depression any less painful or dangerous. You may not see physical manifestations of depression (in the beginning at least), but it is a real, potentially life-threatening illness. There were times during my depressive episode when I regretted that this disease was not accompanied by more blatant physical symptoms; perhaps a few large boils on my arms or measles like marks all over my body would convince others there really was something wrong with me.
There are so many people who have no choice but to keep functioning, to keep showing up for work despite the fact they are suffering from a debilitating illness. Often those around them are unaware of their suffering because there is no visible clue to the torment occurring inside until, in some cases, it’s too late. It is important to remember that although depression is in our head, this doesn’t make it any less of a disease.
I understand trying to help a depressed friend or relative can quickly become exhausting and stressful, but I hope you will resist the urge to utter any of these platitudes even at your most frustrated. As a caregiver, the most helpful thing you can do for a depressed friend or loved one is to listen with compassion and support without judgment. The most helpful thing you can do for yourself is to look after your own physical and mental well-being and then throw logic and reason out the window.