If you know someone who is struggling with depression, you might be wondering how to talk to and act around them. I suffered from depression for about 1.5 years, and while sometimes things that people said were helpful, other times they were counterproductive.
In this post, I’m going to suggest some ways you can talk to people who have depression.
Ask how they are
Often when a person is depressed, they don’t like to show it, because unfortunately it’s seen as a weakness in our society. Depression is not a weakness, it’s a disease, and the person who has it can’t help it.
Ask how they are, and if they say something generic like, “I’m fine”, you can press your concern further. Follow up with something like, “Really? I’ve noticed that you don’t seem fine; is anything wrong?”. The person might just brush you off again, or they might open up with something small like, “I’m just having a bad day”.
Getting them talking is a huge step towards helping them get better. If they do start to express how they feel, listen and ask follow-up questions. Things like, “Have you felt this way long?”, or “Yeah, I thought something might be wrong, so I wanted to see if you were okay”.
Listen to them
If they are opening up to you, you should really listen to them. Don’t just sit there and think about the next thing you’re going to say. It’s okay to ask follow up questions. If you feel the need, you can share a similar time you’ve felt that way, but only when you think the time is right. Remember this is about them, not you.
Really listening is one of the best things you can do for someone. If they pause, stay silent and wait for them to continue. Your silence is another way of saying to them, “I’m listening, go on”.
Truly being heard can help someone dealing with depression move towards recovery quicker
Trying to solve all their problems won’t work
The last thing a depressed person wants to hear is a two-minute spiel from you about how you felt shit one day and how you got over it. Stories of success can be helpful, but if you try that approach too quickly, it will fall on deaf ears.
If you do tell them about how you got over something, they might simply think, “That’s great for you, now fuck off and leave me to my misery”.
It does sound harsh, but a feeling of not caring goes hand-in-hand with depression. You feel a ton of bad shit with depression. (Read my post about how it actually feels to be depressed to really understand what it’s like.) It’s awful.
If you say things like, “Just do this…, just do that…, you should just…”, it will again fall on deaf ears. It might even be counterproductive, because a person who is depressed doesn’t need to be fixed, they need to be listened to and understood.
Be a continuous support for them
Early on, your advice might fall on deaf ears, but over time your concern will be noticed by the person. Keep talking with them, hanging out with them, and trying to joke around with them.
They might not be too responsive, but even 10 seconds of being distracted can go a long way towards their recovery. When I was depressed, my best friend called me every single day! Often, it was him just talking and me saying the odd word, or me wanting to get off the phone but not wanting to appear rude so staying on anyway.
His calls helped me a lot and although it was hard to hear him laugh on the phone and feel awkward about not wanting to talk, without his calls I might have taken longer to recover.
Call, talk to and hang out with the person as often as you can
A depressed person often doesn’t give a crap about the world, themselves or anyone around them. So, sometimes they might blow up at you, or act totally out of character. If you say something that bothers them, they might just get angry and shout, “I don’t give a shit about that; stop trying to fucking help me!”.
If this happens, take heart and stay persistent. It’s not them talking, it’s the depression. They might be incredibly frustrated that they feel so horrible while everyone else seems so normal around them.
A toddler’s outburst can be the same
You can take heart in the face of an outburst, because an outburst is better than no answer at all. Think of a young toddler who is in the phase of life is known as ‘the terrible twos’. It’s a time in a child’s development where they start to realise they’re their own person, but they can’t really talk or communicate yet. This can be frustrating for both parent and child.
The child might cry and yell when her mother tries to put her back in the pram. However, if a family friend held the child, the child would instantly stop crying. Or, if a child is having a tantrum while walking and is again picked up by a family friend, the child will stop and seem like an angel.
The reason toddlers scream and cry with their parents and not others is because they know and trust their parents. They feel comfortable letting loose with their parents. They don’t with a stranger.
It’s the same with a depressed person. If they’re yelling or going on at you, you should take heart. It’s because they trust you and are comfortable showing themselves in this state to you. That’s a good sign.
Always take time out for yourself
It can be quite draining and frustrating to help someone with depression. You need to remember to take care of yourself. It’s like in a plane when the flight attendants say, “First put on your own oxygen mask before helping others around you”. Use the same idea when helping someone with depression: You need to help yourself before you can help them.
A depressed person needs help, but the idea of needing to help yourself before you help them rings true. Keep doing the things you enjoy, take time for yourself, recharge.
If you do this you’ll have the energy to be able to help them, which is crucial for both of you.
It’s OK to set boundaries
We often go above and beyond when helping someone, and we may find lots of our boundaries being crossed or extended. For example, you might say to them, “It’s okay to call me day or night”, which is great to know as a depressed person.
However, if you find the person you’re trying to help is taking advantage of you, it’s okay to point this out to them. For example, if you set a time to meet and go out together, but they keep cancelling on you at the last minute, it’s okay to tell them that it’s unacceptable for them to keep doing that.
If you cook for them and take food to their house, but find your food is going to waste as they’re just eating fast food, tell them that it’s unacceptable. You could also reinforce that the food you’re making is healthy and will help them feel better.
In general, don’t let them walk all over you. You can still be a caring shoulder to cry on and a friendly pair of ears to talk to, but don’t let them take advantage of that.
If you’re unsure of the difference between depression and simply having a bad day, or feeling down, read my depression warning signs post.