When depression begins to take over someone’s life, it can take control of almost every aspect of daily activity. Addressing or talking to someone about what they are facing can be even harder when effective communication also takes a hit. You want to do your best to help a loved one or a friend when they’re going through hard times, but conversations are coming up short or becoming awkward quickly.
Opening up about something as intense as depression can’t be pried out of someone most of the time. Sometimes people can open up, but others might find themselves stumped when it comes to talking about their ailments. Others may not desire to talk about it at all, which is okay too. Likely no single person will ever be the same when it comes to an emotional response. Still, there are ways to open up safe communication more effectively and initiate dialogue with someone who might be struggling.
Across this blog post, we’ve given a few examples of what you can say to best help someone struggling. Know that these examples are not just based in opinion, but are recommendations of what you can say by mental health professionals.
Demonstrate your support. If you’re taking the time to read this blog post, chances are you’re not one of the kinds of people to say something like “just think happy thoughts.” Regardless, showing support can feel awkward when we’re not sure of what to say or when it feels like there’s a lot of “wrong” things to say.
Try to keep your mindset centered around empathy rather than sympathy however you can. Most people do not want to be felt sorry for, or feel like a burden to others. Even if you don’t think you’ve experienced depression before, do your best to picture yourselves in their position. Validating their condition without sympathy will show support in a more genuine manner that is less likely to come across as patronizing or annoyed. An example of what you can say is, “I may not understand what you’re going through, but I’m here for you how I can be.”
If you think trying to talk is not the right thing to do yet but you still want to help how you can, there are other ways to show support and availability while indirectly encouraging progress. For example, asking “how can I help you today?” is a simple statement that can go a long way. Some might not want to be helped, but those that do might feel like you’re lifting a huge weight off their shoulders just by going to the supermarket for them.
Patience is key. Some people know how to quickly assess their feelings and thoughts and can express them when asked. Others might need more time to understand how they’re feeling, or maybe time to piece together how to communicate these feelings. Regardless of how long some may need, allowing them patience to figure it out is critical. Trying to force out talks from people when they are not ready might result in creating more problems than potentially fixing. Allow the process to take a while, and don’t be upset when somebody isn’t prepared to describe what they are feeling just yet.
Patience not only allows who you’re trying to help time to formulate their thoughts, but it also sends a message that you genuinely care enough to let recovery take as long as they need. It wouldn’t be heavy-handed to directly express this as well! For example, outright saying, “I’m here to help no matter how long it takes” or “take as long as you need to talk to me” sends a clear expression of understanding and likely will provide a level of comfort and relief.
Know what not to say. There are clear to most incorrect statements like the “happy thoughts” sentiment we expressed earlier. Generally speaking, most people know to avoid sweeping statements like these, but other unintentionally hurtful affirmations might go under the radar sometimes. Sayings like “Stay strong, it will pass eventually” and “depression happens sometimes” have noble intentions, but are ultimately unhelpful and likely something whoever you are talking to is already painfully aware of.
Be mindful of any statements that imply that effort is the only thing holding someone back from recovery. Encouragements such as “you just need to keep trying” or “with some work you’ll get over this” are again coming from the right place, but are ultimately sentiments your friend or loved one already understands and is likely already working towards fixing.
Lastly, avoid comparisons of any kind. An aspect of depression is that it’s not entirely logical, and where it comes from isn’t always well understood. Making a comparison such as “there’s always someone that has it worse right now” isn’t an incorrect perspective to point out, but that doesn’t solve or help anyone suffering. It can even make things worse because comparison can be an unintentional way of invalidating one’s feelings by positioning it against somebody else’s struggle. Just because a person is in a place of privilege compared to others that are also struggling does not make their feelings or thoughts any more or less “real” than anyone else’s.
Assert their importance. Finally, let your friend or loved one know how important they are to you! Don’t shift the conversation to be about you instead of them, but letting them know their importance in your eyes is encouraging in almost any scenario. Be open and honest, and progress may soon yet come.
A final note: if someone is expressing suicidal thoughts or tendencies, get a professional involved immediately. Do not dismiss ANY worrying statements or behaviors as temporary or unimportant. Help them reach out to the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or reach out to mental health specialists and take steps to get the help your friend or loved one needs.