When I blog about my experiences with depression, I frequently have people ask me how they can help those in their lives who are struggling with this illness. I’m always a little hesitant to answer the question, because people’s needs can vary widely. But I figured I’d list some of what I’ve personally found helpful, and less helpful, in my own experience.
Things Not to Say
1. Come on, snap out of it! Pull yourself together. Forget yourself, and get to work.
When someone express the idea that I can, with enough willpower, bulldoze my way out of depression, that suggests to me that the person isn’t all that familiar with depression. This advice might help if you’re feeling discouraged or having a bad day (though I’m not sure how helpful it is even then), but when I’m depressed, it sounds like I’m both being asked to do the impossible, and blamed for not being able to do it.
2. I know this amazing cure for depression . . .
People can be surprisingly eager to share various remedies for depression, from herbal supplements to programs to particular diets. And I certainly don’t mind when people mention things that have helped them; that’s useful information. But when it turns into proselytizing, and the person is convinced that their solution is the only one that works and won’t stop pushing it on you, it just gets exhausting. Depression doesn’t manifest itself in the exact same way in every person, or have the same combination of causes, which makes me wary of anything claiming to be The One True Cure. And the fact that there are so very many proposed cures indicates to me that we haven’t actually come up with anything definitive yet.
3. You just need to pray and read your scriptures more.
Sure, prayer and scripture study can be good things. But I see at least two problems with this prescription. First, at least in my experience, prayer can help you cope, but you can’t pray your way out of depression. And when people prescribe it as a cure, that often just feeds into the guilt that I’m probably already feeling. Rational or not, my depression frequently feels like some kind of deserved punishment that I’ve somehow brought on myself—and framing it as the the result of unrighteousness or spiritual neglect just intensifies that feeling.
The second problem is a little harder to explain. But here’s the thing: When I’m in a depressed state, it’s not necessarily a good idea to pray and read my scriptures. It can actually exacerbate my symptoms. Reading the scriptures can turn into self-condemnation when I see all the stuff about sin and punishment. Prayer can turn into rumination about everything I’ve done wrong. Because of this, I find that I have to be careful in my approach to spiritual practice.
4. Stop thinking about yourself, and focus on serving others.
This is possibly the most triggering thing you can say to me. (Now you know!) What I hear is an accusation that I’m selfish, and that that is why I’m depressed. It doesn’t inspire me to go out and serve others—it inspires me to curl up in a ball and feel horrible about myself. I’m not denying that service can be a great thing, both in and of itself and because of the perspective it can give you. But I think it’s a lousy prescription for depression, when sometimes even getting out of bed seems outside of the range of what I can handle.
5. Count your blessings.
I remember a particular instance when I was in a pretty bad depression, and I decided to try this one out. I made a list of fifty things in my life that were good. I actually didn’t have to try too hard to come up with them. And yet I felt completely numb. If anything, it was more depressing, both to realize how disconnected I was from life, and because it made me feel like I had no right to be depressed. I’ve heard that it’s impossible to be both depressed and grateful, but I disagree. I can acknowledge the good things in my life—and sometimes I can even feel appreciation for them, despite everything—but it doesn’t take away the depression.
In sum, a possible rule of thumb: if you wouldn’t propose it as a cure for a person with a broken leg, don’t propose it as a cure for depression.
But on a more positive note—
What to Say Instead
1. I care about you. And I’ll keep caring, even when you make mistakes.
When things are really bad, it can be hard to believe that anyone would really care, but it’s nice to hear it anyway. And speaking as a recovering perfectionist, it helps to get reassurance that people don’t only care because I’m good at x, y, or z, and that I don’t have to meet some arbitrary standard of okayness.
2. You’re not a burden.
When I’m depressed, I feel like a black hole that sucks away anything good or positive, which makes me not want to be around people, lest I contaminate them. I worry about being a burden, and wonder whether people would be better off without me. (In my experience, this is a pretty common symptom of depression.) It’s helpful to explicitly hear otherwise.
3. I hear that you’re in a bad place right now. This is a tough thing to be going through.
It’s a big deal to me to feel like my problems are being taken seriously and not downplayed. I get discouraged when conversations turn into the Suffering Olympics—you think you’re depressed? Listen to this story! Depression hurts, regardless of how many other people are also hurting. And it’s really helpful to me simply to have it acknowledged that this is a hard thing to be dealing with. It makes me feel heard.
4. You don’t have to pretend that you’re not depressed.
It’s not easy for me to admit to people that I’m having a hard time; my general strategy is to act like I’m okay in public. I worry that talking about it when I’m in a bad place will make everyone feel awkward and unsure what to do. So I really value the people in my life who can simply accept it when I’m depressed, who don’t have expectations that I’ll snap out of it; it gives me space to be honest.
5. I believe that you can get through this.
This can be a tricky one, and I think it’s best paired with number 3—otherwise it can come across as trivializing the problem (e.g., of course you can get through this; it’s not that really that bad). But at some of my worst moments, it’s helped to hear that other people have faith in me when I’ve lost it for myself. It reminds me that depression isn’t all there is to life, and encourages me to keep going.
Other Things That Can Be Helpful
1. Take care of yourself. It’s okay to have boundaries.
Depression can be difficult for both the depressed person and those who care about her, and I think it’s particularly crucial for the latter to make sure they aren’t neglecting their own needs. When I’m in a bad spot, I find it really important for me to know that I’m not draining people’s energy, and that they’re able to set healthy boundaries. Otherwise, as I said above, I worry about becoming a burden.
I also know how easy it can be (at least for people with my temperament) to fall into a dysfunctional relationship in which one person feels responsible for “rescuing” the other. But it isn’t great for either person. It can lead to all kinds of complications: the person trying to be in a rescuing role can get burned out and resentful, and the depressed person might pick up on that and feel worse, or feel extra pressure to “get better.”
2. Talk about your problems, too. Don’t turn it into a one-sided relationship.
I like it when people still trust me enough to talk about things that are going on with them, instead of being careful around me. It makes me feel like I still have something to contribute.
3. Just listen, without trying to fix things.
It can be hard to do this, to just be with someone who’s having a hard time, without trying to cheer them up. But I’ve really appreciated it when people have been willing to hear that I’m depressed without immediately trying to make it better. The phrase “mourn with those that mourn” comes to mind; I think there’s something powerful to that.
Since I tend to use humor as a coping mechanism, I’m not at all trying to say that all conversations must be serious, or consist solely of my talking about things that are hard right now. Sometimes distractions can be really good. But it helps a lot when people are able to genuinely and nonjudgmentally listen if I do need to talk.
4. Stick around, even if I’m isolating.
When I’m in a bad place, I, like many others, tend to isolate. I might find it too overwhelming to go to any social functions. But I do appreciate being asked (in a low-pressure way); it’s nice to know that people are thinking of me. I also appreciate the friends who periodically text or email to see how things are going, and whom I can hang out with in low-key settings. It helps me feel more connected.
5. Be there if I need support in getting professional help.
I’ve been navigating the world of mental health for so long that I sometimes forget how hard it can be to initially get into treatment, especially if you’ve never seen a psychiatrist or therapist. But it was incredibly intimidating for me at the beginning. There’s a catch-22 in that when you’re depressed and need the help, you’re too overwhelmed to seek it out—and then when you feel better, you have no motive to seek it out. So having someone who will encourage you and give you moral support can really make a difference. Years ago, when I was getting back into treatment after several years and some bad experiences, a friend made an initial therapy appointment for me, and then came with me the first time and waited while I was in there. That was a huge help.
Okay, that’s what I came up with; I hope it’s helpful. Please feel free to chime in with your own experiences, ideas, or even disagreements.
- 21 February 2013