What Not to Say to Someone Struggling with Depression
I've had the misfortune of struggling with depression for a long time. I have experience with many different aspects of dealing with depression. I'm a depression veteran. I'm writing this to speak to those who aren't. You may have dealt with feeling a bit blue from time to time but depression is very likely a completely alien thing to you. You may have someone you care about who has the black dog of depression constantly stalking them. Maybe you don't know what to say to them. Unfortunately, sometimes people who have good intentions say things out of misguided attempts at tough love that can do more harm to a person than good. What follows are a few of the things you should not say to someone that is struggling with depression.
“Just snap out of it."
If it was as simple as just snapping out of it then they would just do it. Most days it's probably all that they want to do. In fact, they are probably telling themselves that very thing sometimes. It trivializes the problem. They cannot snap out of it no matter how much they might want to. In the same way you wouldn't go into a cancer ward and tell the patients there to snap out of it, don't say it to a depressed person. Saying, “Just snap out of it” really is about as effective as trying to take down a grizzly bear with a slingshot. At best, maybe they might be slightly touched that you cared enough to say anything to them. At worst, you've trivialized their extremely serious problem.
It would be hard for me to accurately describe what depression is like even as someone who suffers from it. Imagine the worst disappointment of your life. Take the feeling of that disappointment and multiply it by 100 and imagine that the feeling is with you all hours of the day. That's as close as I can come to describing what it's like. That's what it's like for the person who is being told to “just snap out of it.”
“Your life is great. Why are you sad? There are people with real problems.”
This is something I would say to myself. I didn't have cancer. My hair wasn't falling out. I wasn't living in poverty. I lived in the freest, most prosperous nation in the world. What did I have to be sad about? There is real suffering in the world. It never helped to remind myself there were people who had it much worse than me. Why? My depression loomed so large in my head because it was my problem. It was my lot. Everything else wasn't. I had intimate knowledge of it that was impossible to escape.
Something else to realize is that depression is a real problem. It's a real enough problem for people to consider suicide as a way out of it.
“You're being punished for your sin.”
Some people struggling with depression find solace in their faith. You may be close with someone in your faith community and maybe you've discussed depression with them in a theological context. I cannot presume to know the mind of any theoretical deities but telling someone with depression that God has it in for them because of some misdeed isn't something they need to hear. They probably have enough scary thoughts of self loathing and anxiety without giving thought to an angry, vengeful, omnipotent God with a need to punish them.
People can do lots of damage when they try to speak for God. You can attempt to support them in a way that is informed by faith if that is your style. You can pray with them if you think that would help them. Just don't try to speak for God because I assure you that you are not he, she or it.
“You're just starved for attention.”
Human beings desire attention. Some people will do some pretty extreme things for attention. Most people probably don't have the commitment to really go for it to fake depression to get some attention. Are they really going to miss lots of work and risk losing their job to sell people on their fake depression to get attention? Are they going to appear distant from their spouses, friends, girlfriends or boyfriends and risk their relationships in order to sell people on their depression? It isn't likely. Rather than play detective to determine the veracity of their condition, just show some compassion.
What should you say to someone struggling with depression?
I'm reminded of the story of Job from the Bible. After Job loses all of his livestock and his 10 children and is afflicted with horrible boils and is in terrible anguish, his friends come to visit him. They sit with him in silence for 7 days. They eventually open their mouths but I often wonder if it would've been better had they kept them closed. Sometimes there is absolutely nothing to say and the best thing that you can do is to simply be present.