Avoid these words with a depressed friend
More than 280 million people around the world struggle with depression. Despite how common depression is, it can still be hard to talk about. If you know someone who's living with depression, here are some tips for how to recognize it, and how to talk about it.
How can you tell if someone is depressed?
Though depression can be all-consuming for a person living with it, it’s not always easy to recognize depression in friends or loved ones. Some people with depression become very good at hiding their symptoms from others.
Major depressive disorder (MDD), also called clinical depression, is characterized by a major depressive episode (MDE) and has two core symptoms: Depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure (also called anhedonia). While there is a clear medical definition for these terms, it is important to be mindful that the symptoms of depression aren’t black and white and aren’t always easily visible. Though depression can look different for everyone, there are some common warning signs.
Withdrawal and isolation
When you notice the symptoms of depression in a loved one, asking them to make plans might seem like the most logical way to show support. For a depressed person, making plans, and more importantly, keeping plans, is difficult. One of the major symptoms of depression you can look for in a loved one is canceling plans, reluctantly agreeing to plans, or turning down plans altogether. It’s hard not to take canceled plans personally but understanding that a person’s actions are a symptom of depression can help you cope and support your loved one.
Loss of interest in activities
You may notice your friend or loved one no longer engages in activities they once enjoyed. Maybe they’ve stopped exercising, crafting, cooking, or hanging out with friends. Loss of interest in activities or hobbies is a tell-tale sign of depression. This is because serotonin levels, which help promote feelings of joy, are low in people with depression, making it hard to feel calm or happy. Activities or hobbies that once brought joy may not anymore.
Depression can have a drastic effect on a person’s mood. Your friend who you’ve always known to be bubbly, upbeat, or optimistic may suddenly seem sad, angry, aggravated, or start to have a negative outlook on life. Keep in mind, it is possible to appear ‘happy’ and still be depressed. Mood changes are different for everyone and some people with depression become skilled at masking their symptoms. Regardless, as a friend, changes in mood can be hard to cope with, especially if you don’t know that these behaviors are symptoms of depression. It can be helpful to stay mindful of what your friend is experiencing and know that their actions are a result of depression
For a more complete list of symptoms check out: what does depression feel like.
What should you avoid saying to a depressed friend?
Depression affects over 17 million adults in the U.S., so odds are you know a friend or a family member who is struggling. It can be upsetting to watch a loved one struggle, especially if you’re not sure how to help. It’s hard to understand exactly what someone is going through and it’s easy to say the wrong thing, even if you have the best of intentions. Sometimes it’s easier to start with what not to say. Here are some things to avoid saying to a friend experiencing depression, and some things to say instead.
Don’t blame them for their depression
No one chooses to have a mental health condition, though even people who are diagnosed with a condition like depression may feel like it’s a character flaw. It’s important to remember that depression is a medical condition and isn’t anyone’s fault. Saying things like “you just need to try and be more positive” or “you just need to make better life choices” can compound feelings of guilt, shame, and blame that a person with depression might already feeling. Instead, try to remind your friend that while they don’t deserve to be living with depression, they do deserve to start feeling better.
Don’t tell them they need to try harder
For someone living with depression, doing simple tasks like getting out of bed or brushing their teeth might feel impossible. If your friend is experiencing this, it’s normal to want to motivate them or encourage them to tackle their to-do list. After all, getting things done would make them feel so much better, right?! Maybe not. It’s important to understand that depression affects areas of the brain that control a person’s ability to complete tasks and feel motivated. So even your best pep talk isn’t going to suddenly give someone with depression the ability to take on tasks that they’re not up for. Instead of trying to motivate them or telling them to try harder, let them know you’re available to help and ask them how you can best support them.
Don’t dismiss their feelings and moods
Your friend may find it helpful to talk about how they’re feeling, and you may not be sure how to respond—especially if you’ve never experienced depression yourself. It’s natural to want to relate to what they are going through or offer them solutions to their feelings. You may find yourself saying things like “sometimes I get sad too,” or “when I’m sad I just go work out.” But when we try to overly relate to someone or offer solutions this can feel invalidating or dismissive. Instead, try acknowledging that what they’re going through must be hard and reminding them you are there to support them however they need it.
Don’t tell them to be more grateful
When someone is in a negative headspace, it’s normal to want to counteract that with positivity. It’s common to respond to someone who’s feeling down by suggesting they think about all the things that have to be grateful for. But if your friend is struggling with depression, it’s likely that they are already facing intense feelings of guilt. Remember, feeling hopeless or down is a symptom of depression, not a choice. Instead, try offering to help them find support with a mental health professional like a psychiatrist or therapist. Talk therapy and medication are effective ways to manage the negative thoughts that come along with depression.
Don’t tell them things could be worse
Major symptoms of depression include feelings of guilt or worthlessness. Being reliant on others for emotional support or other needs can often compound these feelings and it’s likely that your friend is feeling guilty about needing support from others. You may feel like you need to help them gain perspective on their situation by saying something like “things could be worse.” But this will likely only add to the guilt they are already experiencing. Instead, acknowledge that they’re going through a difficult time and that you’re happy to help them. Anything you can say to make them feel at ease about needing support is helpful. That said, it's also important to set clear boundaries with yourself so you don’t end up feeling emotionally drained and resentful.
Don’t try to control them
It’s easy to slip into a ‘fix-it’ mindset when you see someone close to you struggling. You want to do everything in your power to help them and you may see a clear path for them to get better. But remember, it’s not your job or within your power to ‘fix’ or ‘cure’ your friend or loved one. Instead of pushing solutions or treatments on someone, try handing them resources to look over when they’re ready. You can say something like “I was reading about how to get help for depression and thought you might find this helpful. I’m here if you want help getting set up with support.” It’s important that the person struggling with depression seeks help when they decide they’re ready.
Don’t tell them to cheer up
Has anyone ever told you to “calm down” when you were feeling heated or overwhelmed about something? We’ve all been on the receiving end of this advice or even said it ourselves. More often than not, it can make someone feel even more heated. Telling a friend with depression to “cheer up” will have a similar effect. They are likely to feel invalidated and shamed that they cannot simply will their way out of depression. Instead of telling them to “cheer up”, you can remind them that their feelings may be hard to deal with in the moment, but they won’t last forever.
Looking for help, but aren’t sure where to look?
Supporting a friend with depression can be hard on your own mental health so it’s important to take care of your own well-being. Engaging in activities you enjoy, eating healthfully, and getting enough sleep can all help you manage your stress. Don't hesitate to ask for professional help if you need it.
If you are looking to help a friend connect with a mental health professional, Talkiatry is a great place to start. Talkiatry is a national psychiatry practice that provides in-network, virtual care and treats patients with conditions such as depression, ADHD, anxiety and more. It starts with a 10-minute assessment that matches you with a psychiatrist that takes your insurance.
The information in this article is for informational and educational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right now.
Dr. Brenda Y. Camacho holds the position of Staff Psychiatrist at Talkiatry. She is board-certified in Adult Psychiatry. She has been practicing for over 25 years.
While having treated a wide range of adult patients, Dr. Camacho’s primary focus is treating adult outpatients with mood or psychotic disorders. Her practice focuses on medication management. Typically, she offers this in conjunction with supportive or insight-oriented therapy in 30-minute follow-up visits. On occasion, Dr. Camacho will believe additional therapy is also needed and asks that you bring a therapist into your care team to provide the best outcome.
Dr. Camacho completed her undergraduate studies at Tufts University. She received her medical degree from Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia, PA and then continued with Temple for her residency in adult psychiatry. After completing training, Dr. Camacho worked at Cooper Hospital in Camden NJ as Associate Director of Consultation/Liaison Service and Psychiatry Residency Training and Co-Director of the Neuropsychiatry Clinic. She then began working exclusively in outpatient settings, joined NewPoint Behavioral Health Care, and served as Medical Director before and after their merge with Acenda Integrated Health.