School Social Work Newsletter
Cancer vs. Mental Health
6 things not to say to someone with depression — and 7 things we should say and do.
- JANUARY 13, 2016
There are many, many things we'd never say to someone with a serious physical illness like cancer.
- "A lot of people are worse off than you."
- "I'm getting tired of hearing about this."
- "Snap out of it."
- "You're kind of dragging me down."
- "Why don't you just go outside and get some sunshine. You'll be fine."
- "Can we stop with the pity party?"ll
And yet people dealing with depression hear these kinds of statements all too often.
Why is that? Well, it's probably partly because of the way we talk about depression.
"We use the word depression all the time in our ordinary language to talk about feeling down or upset about something that makes us feel low or bad," Dr. Harold Koenigsberg, a psychiatrist and a professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, shared with Upworthy.
Those feelings are normal, and we all experience them, but we're talking about a medical condition here — something that persists for a few weeks or longer and something that can even put a person at risk for suicide. Depression isn't a fleeting feeling or a temporary mood.
If you can't imagine yourself saying any of these damaging things to a person battling cancer, you shouldn't ever consider saying them to someone battling depression, another life-threatening illness.
If you have a minute, watch, then scroll down for some expert advice on what we should say.
Depression is serious, and it affects many people.
"Depression is a very common disorder," Koenigsberg said. He explained that about 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men will suffer from major depression at some point in their life.
Those statistics mean it's pretty likely we all know someone who has dealt with depression at one point or another.
So we know what not to say. But what should we say and do?
Koenigsberg, who's also on the board of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, said the first thing we should do if someone we care about is experiencing depression is to listen. "Be a good listener," he said. "Be interested in what they’re going through and what they’re feeling."
He recommends remaining nonjudgmental "to give the message that you care about them and you’re accessible to them."
2. Encourage the person to seek professional help.
If they're stuck in the depression — if it's not going away for days and days; if it's affecting their sleep, appetite, and physical function; if they're not able to work; if they feel hopeless, suicidal, etc. — "you want to encourage them to get help," Koenigsberg said.
3. Remember that it may not be obvious to the person that they need help.
"It's worth thinking about how to encourage someone who's depressed to get help," Koenigsberg said. First, many people feel like they should be able to manage it themselves. And second, he pointed out that many people experiencing depression feel hopeless. "They can feel like nothing is going to help them, so why bother?"
4. Point out the benefits of seeking outside help.
"It can be useful to tell people that depression is in fact very responsive to treatment and often, talking with an neutral person can make a big difference," Koenigsberg explained. "[Talking to] a person who isn’t involved in their life … can give them more leverage with the issues that they’re struggling with."
When it comes to medication, he said that some people feel resistant because they're focused on a particular situation or issue that's contributed to the depression. That makes it harder to understand how medication could help.
"It’s often helpful to explain that when you’re under a lot of emotional stress or a situation that is taxing on you — a big burden or strain — if that goes on for a while, it can set off a chain reaction of chemistry in the brain," he said. "It can set off disregulations in different brain chemicals, and medication can reset that. ... By getting the chemistry back to normal, that will give them more resources to help the issue they’re struggling with."
5. Make it easier for the person to get help.
Remember that when someone is facing depression, even simple, everyday tasks can feel daunting and overwhelming. As such, the additional step of finding someone to talk to might be too much. "It's hard to get over the hurdle," Koenigsberg said. "Make it easier by giving them a phone number."
You could help them research their insurance coverage and find a doctor on their plan, or you could assist in locating a clinic that will help folks who don't have insurance if that's a barrier to seeking help.
6. Physical exercise is helpful.
While you should never tell someone to get out and get some sunshine as though that'll cure their depression, Koenigsberg points out that physical exercise can be helpful to someone experiencing depression. Drop by and ask the person if they'd like to go for a walk with you.
7. Check in.
Showing up is important — and it doesn't have to be in the physical sense if that's not possible. Call the person and ask how they're doing. When you're done talking, tell them you're going to check back in soon so they know you're there for them.
Depression isn't just a temporary mood. It's a serious medical condition that needs treatment. And by keeping these tips in mind, not only can we avoid saying the wrong things, but we can be there to say and do the right things.
Want to learn more about the Hope for Depression Research Foundation? You can follow them on Facebook and Twitter. If you want to seek treatment but don't know where to start, check out this interactive map that allows you to search by state. If you're in crisis right now, reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
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