My close friend sent me a buzzfeed list today titled “23 Things You Probably Shouldn’t Say to Someone with Depression.” (http://www.buzzfeed.com/annaborges/you-cant-just-choose-happiness?bffbmain&utm_term=.ui8gBNXO5#.clPjbzLZM) I love articles that bring loving exposure to mental illness. It’s a pretty great list, but I do want to go a bit more in depth than the list. It could be better, and, to be honest, I don’t think it’s proactive enough if you’re a true friend. If you have learned anything about me here, I hope it’s that I’m a fighter and I won’t face depression sitting down even if it knocks me out for weeks at a time. But a depressed person can rarely fight alone. So here are a few changes/additions I would make to buzzfeed’s list for friends of the depressed.
“Have you tried…?”
I actually say this to depressed people all the time, but I do have a lot of therapeutic experience. I have tried a lot of things, so I want to tell people about what has worked. If you don’t have experience with mental health therapy; do quality research, and please begin with medical/scientific research rather than homeopathic research. And instead of telling or emailing your research to your depressed friend, put it into practice. You think a sunlamp would help your friend with SAAD? Don’t tell them; buy them a sunlamp and take it to their home. Ask if you can try it out together; then leave it there and don’t ask if they’re using it. If your friend is willing to try counseling but is afraid or reluctant, consider paying for the counseling and drive them to the appointment. Then wait in the waiting room patiently to drive them home; your safe presence matters in a fearful or uncomfortable situation even out of eyeshot. Don’t ask questions, just drive and pay if necessary. You can’t force your depressed friend to try a new therapy, and advice often comes across as critical, but you can give them gifts, books, giftcards, etc and offer to join in if appropriate. It’s okay to feel like you want to help fix your friend’s problem, but you probably can’t. What you can do is give them resources to fight with no strings attached and no questions asked.
“Let’s just go grab a drink and take your mind off it.”
This is an easy one to fix. Instead of asking them to go out and forget, take a bottle of wine etc to your depressed friend and tell them you’re there to listen. Depressed people have difficulty being with people, and they have difficulty forgetting their pain, but we still need friends. Be willing to change up your social schedule to accommodate supporting your friend without leaving them behind.
“Don’t worry, you’re strong enough to get through this.”
Maybe the phrasing is wrong here, but the general idea is okay, I think. It’s stupid to tell a depressed person not to worry. It’s a debilitating illness–that’s pretty worrisome. How about just saying, “You are so strong in the face of such struggle.” Assure your depressed friend that they are strong, but don’t make it about strength to get better in the future, make it about the strength they are showing in the present. Recognize that it takes enormous strength for a severely depressed person to even get out of bed some days. Give them credit and praise for what they are already doing rather than what they could do in the future.
“Have you been taking your medication?”
Ugh! This is like asking a woman if she is on her period. Not cool. But, if you are a caretaker rather than a friend, I think this is okay. The difference between a friend and caretaker is like the difference between a hospital visitor and a nurse–one brings flowers and the other has to change bedpans. Don’t try to be a caretaker if you’re just a visitor. Don’t ask personal health questions. However, many depressives, including myself, are sometimes resistant to taking medication even when it is very necessary. If you are a caretaker as opposed to a friend, it is okay to lovingly remind your depressed family member of their medication, just do it in a smooth, subtle way when you’re loved one is not distressed. Timing is everything.
“Maybe you should focus on exercising and eating right.”
Physical health is an important part of whole body balance, but again, rather than offering advice, act on your ideas. Don’t tell a depressed person to exercise and eat right; eating and moving are difficult things to do when you’re severely depressed. Bodily sensations are generally unpleasant to a depressed person. Instead, cook a healthy but tasty meal and take it to their house. If they can’t eat at that time, offer to put it in the fridge or freezer for later, no questions asked. Invite your depressed friend to go on a walk, anywhere, anytime, and at any pace they choose. Offer to pick them up at home and drive. Walk somewhere where your friend feels safe, even if it’s just around the block one time. Every little bit helps.
“You’re being too hard on yourself.”
Yeah. Don’t use these words. Don’t criticize at all. Instead just be gentle. If they are self-critical respond with something positive they do now and how wonderful it is. Look at the details. Of course depressives are hard on themselves; that’s just part of the gig. You have the opportunity, instead, to tell a depressed friend what they honestly mean to you now in the present. Don’t dwell on the past or the future, find the good in them now because it’s there even though they can’t see it.
“It gets better just hang in there.”
Another good idea said in the wrong way. Basically it’s pretty true–if you hang on and fight with medication and therapy it will probably get better. But saying that seems flippant. The general problem is that depressives feel and think deeply, so superficial comments mean very little. I’ve said it before to caretakers, but it works for friends, too–dig in and dig deep. Get personal if you’ve ever survived depression. Connect your depressed friend with a survivor you know, or find literature about depressive struggle and survival. Acknowledge that this might be a fight for their life and that simply hanging on may be impossible without help and genuine encouragement.
“Happiness is a choice.”
Nonsense! Happiness is an emotion, and in depression you simply can’t control your emotions. But that’s not the end of it. You can help your friend train to one day experience happiness again. Don’t send memes or inspirational quotes out of context. Again, this comes across as flippant. Make their favorite meal, watch their favorite movie, listen to their favorite album; engage in anything (harmless) that provides something resembling happiness. Simple engagement is a big step for a depressive. It may last an hour or a moment, but it matters. One laugh after hours of tears can be so momentarily freeing. Or 10 minutes of discussion can be a temporary escape from isolation. And it is a reminder that there’s something more than just depression. Happiness isn’t a choice a depressed person can make, but providing support is a choice a friend can make.
“I know you can beat this.”
Simple change: “I will help you beat this.” How can you possibly know if a very ill person will survive? You may have faith in your loved one, but illness is illness. We can treat illness, but, in this world, we are at the mercy of our ailing bodies. Don’t scarily tell your friend how dire their situation is, but acknowledge the seriousness of it. Many people do not win the fight with depression. But support makes survival more likely. If you really care about your friend, let them know you’re committed to helping, and follow through.
Buzzfeed says these are the things you should say to a depressed person:
“I’m here for you.”
“I’m sorry you’re hurting.”
“How can I help?”
“You don’t have to deal with this alone.”
“I can only begin to imagine what you’re going through, but will try to understand the best I can.”
Most of these are pretty good although a bit vague and noncommittal, but I really struggle with the last one. To be honest, if you have not been depressed, then you cannot understand no matter how hard you try or how much you research. How do I explain the nagging desire to die? How do I explain the depths of personal brokenness? How do I explain being split into two parts, one trying to aggressively smother the other. It’s a mess. It’s horrifying when your brain–the home of your consciousness and identity–is trying to drown itself. You cannot understand. Tell your depressed friend that you cannot understand their struggle, but, more importantly, tell them that you won’t stop helping despite your inability to understand. You don’t have to understand, you just have to provide unconditional love and support. And there are so many of us who have depression that will understand, and we’re out here ready to empathize when you can’t. Find us and reach out on behalf of your friend. Put your money (and your actions) where your mouth is. Don’t say you’ll help and then walk away. Don’t say stupid stuff, but also please don’t keep silent. Show love, authenticity, and gentleness. And above all, listen so that you will better know how to help your friend.