What To Say To Someone Experiencing Depression

If you’ve noticed some concerning changes in someone you care about, and you’re wondering whether they may have depression, it’s important to understand what depression looks like and how you can help.

Below are some of the most effective strategies that you can use to talk to someone with depression.

How to tell if someone has depression

Depression, known clinically as major depressive disorder, is one of the most common mental health issues, affecting one in four people. According to the National Institute of Mental Health¹, approximately 17.3 million people in the US were estimated to be living with depression in 2017.

How can you assess if someone close to you is dealing with depression or if they are just feeling low? It’s not possible for you to determine whether someone has clinical depression, as this assessment needs to be done by a medical professional.

However, there are many signs that can indicate someone is experiencing symptoms associated with depression.

Common symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic², include:

  • Partial or complete lack of engagement in day-to-day activities

  • Significant changes in their communication patterns

  • Disengagement from social activities that were once important to them

  • Changes in sleeping patterns and hygiene

  • Displays of extreme sadness or anger

These are just some of the possible symptoms, and every person with depression may have their own unique experience. While it may seem surprising, you can also be diagnosed with depression without appearing sad. Symptoms like irritability may replace sadness in certain individuals with depression. The wide range of symptoms means it’s often not possible to guess a loved one’s diagnosis.

If you are concerned a loved one may be experiencing depression, you can try to ask them about it, whether they want to discuss it further, and gently suggest seeking professional help.

Talking to someone with depression

Knowing the right thing to say to someone going through depression can be difficult. While you may feel awkward and uncertain about how to broach the subject with them, keep in mind that it doesn’t have to be professional or poetic.

Trust your gut and initiate a supportive conversation with them about their well-being. Your message should simply come from a place of acceptance and compassion³, with no judgment to help them feel more at ease about talking to you.

Consider the following approaches when starting a conversation about depression with a loved one:

1. Be assertive

When discussing depression with a loved one, it is very important to be honest about your concerns. Be assertive and open in raising your concerns with them, but be careful not to

finger-point or blame your friend or family member, as it may make them retreat deeper into their shell and not want to continue the conversation or seek help.

"I" statements are very useful. Begin your sentences with, "I have noticed," "I'm concerned," or "I am worried." You should avoid using phrases that could make them defensive, such as, "You haven’t seemed like yourself lately," or, "You don’t hang out with us anymore."

2. Be empathetic

Make sure your loved ones feel that you understand and acknowledge what they are going through. Phrases such as, "I care," could mean the world to a person with depression who feels that the entire world has turned its back on them. Hugging them or holding their hand can also help to convey empathy, if appropriate.

Remember to be an active listener, maintain eye contact, and say things like, "That sounds very challenging. I'm deeply sorry that you are going through this, "and "I'm always here if you require my help."

3. Ask them how you can help

Depression takes a huge toll on someone’s physical and mental health. There are many things you could do to help, and it helps to ask them what kind of support they feel they need.

While your friend may not be willing to accept your help at first out of fear of becoming a burden, make it clear to them that you do not mind and would be more than willing to offer support because of how much you care about them.

However, depression can also result in exhaustion, so your friend may be mentally fatigued and not know exactly what would help them.

To find out how you can best help your loved one with depression, you could ask the following questions:

  • Do you need me to help you run some errands like house chores or go to the grocery for you?

  • Would you like me to keep you company for a while?

  • Would you like me to take you to the doctor?

  • Do you want to go for a walk outside together?

Bear in mind that the kind of help your friend may suggest, or especially if they decline help, may not actually be beneficial for them. In addition to listening, you should offer some suggestions. This could include initiating healthy activities that can have a positive impact on their mood, such as a walk or meal out at a restaurant they like.

4. Tell them they are not alone

Depression is a very common mental health condition, so your loved one is not alone in their struggle. The number of people with depression may even be higher than reported statistics because many people do not seek medical assistance or a diagnosis.

Depression makes people feel isolated. Tell your friend that they are not alone and that you are there for them to offer support as needed.

By being there to support them and have a conversation with them about how they are feeling, even if you can’t relate to their struggle on a personal level, you can provide a much-needed boost that could encourage them to seek professional help and/or take steps towards recovery.

5. Remind them they are loved and important

Depression takes people who suffer from it to a very dark place in which they can feel the world is against them. It is important to reassure them that they are loved to help promote a more positive perception of themselves. Telling them how important they are and how big of a role they play in everyone's lives can be very comforting for them.

It’s even better if you can be specific about the particular things you love about them, or if you can remind them of specific situations in which they achieved something great, did a good deed, or had other positive experiences. You could write them positive notes, send thoughtful memories, and engage in thoughtful gestures that remind the person they are loved and cherished.

Even though it can feel like they are pushing you away, putting in extra energy to nurture them often helps their recovery process. Just don’t spread yourself too thin or try to “cure” their symptoms, as this can lead you to feel stressed and burdened, which may limit your capacity to help them as well as cause issues for you personally.

6. Urge them to seek professional help

When someone has depression, it is very important that they receive the right treatment. When you are having a conversation with a loved one with depression, you should try to encourage them to seek help as part of their recovery process.

However, you should understand the stigma and shame around mental illness which can stop people from seeking the support they need.

If your friend has not yet seen a professional about their depression, encourage them to book an appointment, assuring them that there is nothing to be ashamed about and there are many effective treatments available.

If they are already in the process of seeking treatment, you can assist them by picking up their medication, accompanying them to appointments, or helping them to practice any skills or techniques they’ve learned in therapy.

7. Sometimes good intentions can go wrong

It’s possible to follow all of the above strategies and do everything right, but still, feel like it’s gone wrong. Maybe your loved one is angry at you for raising the subject of their depression. Don’t take this personally. Anger, anxiety, and extreme mood swings can all be symptoms of depression, which can make it such a difficult mental illness to experience and deal with.

Sometimes people lash out at those wanting to offer them assistance because deep inside they are hurting and don’t know where and how to channel negative emotions.

No matter how your loved one reacts, continue to be there for them by showing them love and kindness. Even if you feel the conversation has gone badly, remember that their situation is not hopeless. Depression is treatable by seeking the right medical help⁴, with love and support from friends or family like you.

The lowdown

If you are concerned that your friend or family member may be suffering from depression, the best thing you can do to help them is to gently start a conversation with them about how they are feeling.

Make sure to be empathetic, show you understand, remind them of how loved they are, ask how you can help, and encourage them to seek professional help.

This could be the first step to your loved one starting their recovery journey, and with your support, you can help them through the process.

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