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?