Posted by: thediygeochemist | February 20, 2011

things not to say to a depressed person

When people discover that someone they know is suffering from depression, they usually do one of two things. The first is to treat the person like a leper. (After all, the person is “mentally ill”–like, you know, the kooks in the asylum!)

The second approach is to spout one of many platitudes which–unbeknownst to them–just serve to make the person feel worse in some fashion. Here are some of the things that I’ve heard over the course of my lifetime:

“I know exactly how you feel.” Sometimes the person actually has a vague idea how I feel. But knowing exactly how I feel? That’s pretty unlikely.

“Everyone gets blue now and then.” There’s a difference between getting blue and suffering from depression.

“Snap out of it.” Haha. If it were as easy as flipping a switch, don’t you think I would have done it already?

“Things could be a lot worse.” Sure they can. If you don’t get lost soon, I might be arrested for assaulting you.

“Cheer up.” Sure, buster. Give me a million bucks and maybe–just maybe–I’d feel better.

Readers–what things have people said to you when you’re depressed?

Instead of trying to “make” the depressed person cheer up, I instead suggest the following:

(1) Say, “If you ever need to talk, I’d be glad to listen.” Although the person may not seem to respond to your invitation immediately, even the suggestion that you’re willing to spend time with them tends to make them feel better. It’s even better if you can be more specific: “I noticed that you reacted strongly when so-and-so mentioned her mother. Is there something about your own mom you need to talk about?”

(2) Ask if there’s anything you can help them with. Even better, make a specific suggestion. When my children were very small I once had a friend who told me, “I am going to come over to your house and watch your boys so you can go out by yourself. What days are best for you?” I would *never* have asked anyone to do this–even if they asked if they could help me in any way–because I had no way of knowing that it was exactly what I needed. I’ve also had people offer to clean my kitchen, give me a massage, and make me dinner…all when I was so buried in depression that I could scarcely function. In all cases these acts of service were precisely what I needed to help me “turn the corner.”

In both cases I mention being specific. This is because when someone is suffering from severe depression, they (1) cannot reach outside of themselves enough to ask for anything, and (2) have enough trouble concentrating that they can’t really think about what would make them feel better.

I find that when I reach out to help someone in need, it helps keep me grounded and less likely to slip into depression myself. I wonder if there’s some sort of neurotransmitter that’s released when we do charitable acts?


  1. You know what else people who don’t get it say to people with depression? “I just don’t understand why people take antidepressants. We don’t know a lot about what they do to the brain, and there are other ways of coping.” Usually, these people aren’t neurobiologists, pharmacologists or physicians. They don’t know jack about the brain. And, sometimes, there isn’t another way of coping for someone who eschewed antidepressants until she landed herself in the hospital after a suicide attempt. All the self-righteous snobbery over antidepressants in the world is not going to change the fact that not everyone’s depression is the same.

    • I hear ya. People claim many things to be life-savers…everything from chocolate to Tylenol…but these don’t save lives the way antidepressants do. I’ve never been on such medication myself but I know people for whom it has made a *huge* difference in their lives.

  2. Seasonal depression is a different entity, though. November through February, there are four things I need:
    SUNLIGHT or a good sunlamp
    A friend to drag me out of my apartment and distract me thoroughly
    Raw salmon (for some reason, this works almost as well as sunlight?)
    15+ hours of sleep a day

    Needless to say, I don’t really understand the long-term, more sucky kind of depression. Mine lasts 3-4 months and I always know there is an end to it. But man, those months aren’t fun…
    Still, you’ll never catch me being snobbish about antidepressants. (Not after years of feeling much more sane on antianxiety meds!)

  3. I guess the antidepressant snobs just want us to go back to the good old days where we just drank ourselves to death.

    I have been told that “I have a lot to be happy about.” I try to avoid telling people about my depression so I don’t punch them. But if I do respond to garbage such as the above, I like to emphasize that the happy/unhappy continuum does not really give any insight into depression.

  4. I don’t know about you, but being told “You shouldn’t be depressed; how can you not see how awesome you are?” has never worked for me. If anything, it makes me want to argue with the person who says it because I simply can’t see what’s to like about myself.
    I’ve actually had people get frustrated with me for putting myself down. Then I feel even worse because I’ve caused them to get upset :\

    • I understand. I acknowledge that I may be awesome in some ways, but I still have so many flaws! How can people focus on the awesome and ignore the flaws that need fixing?

      I have actually gotten better at this over the years–I can sometimes actually just say “thank you” when people compliment me, for example, instead of trying to rationalize that anyone could have done it. But I still need some major help in this regard.

  5. […] so instead I wrote a lot of philosophical posts: the fraud of homeopathy, science appreciation, and things not to say to a depressed person, for […]

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