Many people don't know how to provide comfort or respond appropriately in times of need or crisis. Instead of listening and taking the time to provide a constructive response, they jump to conclusions. They say the first thing that comes to mind, or in other words, they react. This can be unhelpful, or possibly even detrimental to the person in distress. In order to respond in a helpful way, a person must think beyond their initial reaction.
Reactions to Avoid
Based on my experience living with chronic depression and as a psychotherapist, here is my list of reaction pitfalls to avoid when someone talks to you about their depression.
Someone comes to you depressed, and the first thing you say is “it could be worse," or "it's not even that bad." Then, you bring up a story that happened to you or someone you know and compare/contrast. This may make the person feel bad for mentioning what they're going through, as if they’re just complaining. People, especially those of us who suffer from mental illness, want to feel heard and understood. Being dismissive or minimizing the problem makes it seem as if it doesn't matter, which can make someone feel more alone or as a burden to others.
Another way of being dismissive is being too cheerful or overly optimistic. Saying things like "just think positively," "look at the bright side," or trying to cheer the person up by making a ton of unrelated jokes or changing the subject. If a person is feeling down, it can make them feel misunderstood or that you are too uncomfortable to discuss their condition. Being realistic and supportive is more helpful than being superficially happy.
The definition of "gaslighting" is when you make someone feel irrational by discrediting them and making them doubt themselves. It’s hearing phrases like:
"It's all in your head"
- "You're choosing to feel this way"
- "Stop being so negative"
- "Stop feeling sorry for yourself"
- “You're being overdramatic”
- “You're such a crybaby”
Depression is a disease, just like diabetes or asthma, and should be recognized as such. A person with depression, is most likely already facing guilt, shame, helplessness, low self-esteem, loneliness, among other difficult symptoms. None of this is a choice, but it is all a part of the condition. Making these types of comments can be incredibly insensitive and painful to hear. You may think you're giving them tough love or a reality check, but this type of language typically does more harm than good.
Challenging/Playing the Devil's Advocate
Say someone tells you about a friend that they feel slighted or betrayed them. After you listen to their story, you start relating to and defending their friend's actions. Maybe you think their friend didn't do anything wrong or malicious. That's fine, and you can express that and offer some clarity. However, if you go out of your way to analyze the story and identify with their friend, you're now taking sides and undermining their experience. This can cause them to feel their point of view is insignificant or invalid. They came to you and told you the story because they were hurt and searching for support, not for you to ignore and invalidate their feelings.
Giving Unsolicited Advice
Humans, naturally, are fixers. When someone comes to us with a problem, it can be our first instinct to solve it. But giving advice when it isn't requested can be unhelpful, especially if you're not well informed, qualified or familiar with the person's situation. Very often, someone feeling depressed just wants to vent and release their frustrations. If a person asks for it, give the best advice and guidance you can. But if not, don't assume someone needs it and can't figure things out on their own.
How Best to Respond
Now that we've identified the unhealthy reactions people commonly make, here are some healthier alternatives.
A person going through depression wants to feel heard, understood and comforted. Saying things like:
- "I'm really sorry you went through that"
- "That must have been tough"
- "Wow, that sounds stressful"
- "You've been through a lot"
Responses like this mirror feelings and show that you've been listening, you really care and you're acknowledging and imagining what they've been through. It shows that you empathize with their struggles and can make them feel better.
Those who live with depression tend to look at life through a negative lens, and you can help them to see the positive side. If they make a statement like, "I'm a failure," rephrase it in a more realistic way. "No, you had a setback. But it's a lesson learned, and now you can try again." Or, "No, you struggled to get the results you wanted. But that doesn't define you." You can also compliment them by reinforcing their strengths, skills and accomplishments.
Having a Sense of Humor
Making a bad situation funny can be a great way of making someone feel better. But it’s essential to assess the needs of who you're talking to and their communication style. Do they like to laugh things off? Or would they prefer you to be serious? You may be able to tell based on previous conversations, or you can alwaysask. Everyone has different needs at different times.
Living with depression can make a person feel hopeless. Their view of the world may be shrouded in darkness. But you can help them feel hopeful. Remind them that there is help, resources, mental health services and support out there for them. You can offer to take them or go with them to therapy or a support group if they don’t want to go alone. You can also give them consistent support and reassurance. Let them know you believe things will improve for them. Let them know that you are there for them and will support them every step of the way.
Born and raised in the poorer parts of Northern Pasadena, Sky had to navigate the resources available to her at a very young age. Having a family history of chronic mental and physical illnesses as well as disabilities, she was exposed to abuse and neglect and went into foster care at age 15. This opened more doors for her, introduced her to a loving and supportive foster mother, and allowed her to pursue higher education. Now, working towards her doctorate of psychology (Psy.D.) in Marriage and Family Therapy, she has dedicated her life to fighting for social justice/human rights and providing therapy as well as educating others on the importance of mental health.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.