When someone you care about is experiencing depression, you want to help. But people who mean well often say things that aren’t helpful, and might even make a person with depression feel worse. No one wants that. So, we talked to Tyler G. Jones, MD, chief medical officer at Banner Behavioral Health Hospital in Scottsdale, for advice.
“If someone withdraws in a state of depression, don’t take it personally. A person with depression often feels a lot of guilt for things like not being able to socialize or meet their normal obligations to friends and family,” Dr. Jones said. “People do not choose their illnesses.” Genetics, stress, loss of a loved one, and factors like a history of trauma or other medical conditions such as heart attack can contribute to depression, and recovery is a process.
Don’t be surprised if you have a friend or family member or friend who is struggling with depression. It’s a common condition. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates about 21 million people in the U.S. had at least one episode of depression in 2020. And the rate of depression is rising in adolescents.
What are some things you shouldn’t say to someone with depression?
“Avoid shaming, blaming or invalidating the feelings of someone with depression,” Dr. Jones said. It’s tempting to offer advice, but it may not be helpful. When you tell someone with depression what they should do, it may feel like you’re offering a solution, but it can heighten the feelings of guilt that people with depression often feel.
Saying something like, “Just snap out of it,” implies that the person with depression has chosen to feel the way they do. Of course, you should not say they are being selfish or that it’s their fault. And telling someone that other people have it worse may seem like it’s offering perspective, but it can be invalidating.
Avoid saying things like, “You don’t look sad,” or “You haven’t seemed depressed.” “People suffering from symptoms of depression may try to put on a good face for the benefit of family and friends. Calling attention to that may make it harder to discuss how they are really feeling for fear of alienating people they trust. They might withdraw or feel embarrassed or confused,” Dr. Jones said.
What can you say to someone with depression instead?
Dr. Jones said there are several ways to help someone who has depression.
- Ask them how they are feeling, acknowledge that you accept that their feelings are real, and support them in getting the help they need. “Asking someone what they need can be helpful, but sometimes people don’t know what they need or don’t believe they can be helped,” Dr. Jones said.
- Offer to spend time with them in ways they can handle—maybe that means watching a movie at home together or sharing a quiet meal. Be sure to say something like, “Can I go for a walk with you?” rather than “You should go for a walk.”
- Ask if you can help with household chores or cooking. Dr. Jones said, “Small tasks can seem daunting, and as things pile up, a person who is depressed may begin to ruminate on those things they aren’t doing.”
- Try to remove the barriers to treatment—you may want to offer to help them make appointments, for example.
- Instead of offering solutions or advice, say something like, “Is this something where you want advice, or is it helpful just to say it out loud so I can listen?”
Keep in mind that most people with depression are aware of their impact on others. They probably know their family and friends want them to get better and wish they didn’t feel this way. “This feeling is often so intense that they may feel like a burden,” Dr. Jones said.
Treatment can help people recover from depression
“Supporting someone in finding treatment, whether that’s in person or through a virtual clinic, is important,” Dr. Jones said. Effective treatments for depression include cognitive behavioral therapy, medication, transcranial magnetic stimulation, electroconvulsive therapy and ketamine. “People can get better and recover from depression and helping them take those early steps to set up the appointment or even driving them can be impactful,” Dr. Jones said.
The bottom line
When someone you care about is experiencing depression, you want to help. But you might not know what to say or do. Supporting a person with depression and connecting them with the care they need can make a difference. If you would like to talk to a mental health professional to learn more about how to help someone with depression, reach out to Banner Health. If you think someone with depression might be having suicidal thoughts or is at risk of suicide, call 988 (Suicide Crisis Lifeline, formerly known as the Suicide Prevention Lifeline).