7 Things Not to Say to Someone Who Is Depressed (and What to Say Instead)

Despite your best intentions, telling a family member or friend with depression that ‘things could be so much worse’ isn’t as helpful as you might think. Here’s why.

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things to say and not say depression

Telling a loved one with depression that it's okay to feel what they're feeling can go a long way.

Boris Zhitkov/Getty Images; Everyday Health

In 2020, nearly 15 million adults in the United States had clinical depression (aka major depressive disorder), according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Odds are someone close to you is among them.

If a family member or friend has shared with you that they have depression, you may wonder what you can say to best support them. Or maybe you’ve already tried saying the right thing, but it didn’t seem to go over as well as you intended. And worse, the person with depression couldn’t explain why what you said wasn’t helpful.

Here, experts reveal seven things to avoid saying to a loved one who has opened up to you about their depression — and what can you say instead to show you truly do care and want to support them.

1. ‘Be Grateful for What You Have’

Being told to be grateful places blame on the person with depression, which can be incredibly invalidating and damaging, says Laura Geftman, LCSW, a mental health consultant for Lina, a virtual psychiatry clinic for depression and anxiety.

Far too many people think that they are to blame for their symptoms and worry that if only they weren’t “weak” or “self-indulgent” they would feel better. Implying that they don’t feel enough gratitude insinuates that what they are experiencing is not a real medical illness, and it can make them hesitant to seek treatment for what is a very treatable condition.

What’s more, it may backfire and make the person with depression feel unworthy or undeserving of what they do have, Geftman explains.

Try instead:?“Your feelings are valid. I’m here to listen.”

2. ‘You Can Recover Without Medication. I Did!’

You may not realize that telling someone they don’t need medication for their depression is a form of “pill shaming,” Geftman explains. “Shaming others for the use of medication is dangerous because the use of pills to encourage mental health wellness is not only incredibly common but can be positively life-changing.

“For millions of people, psychiatric medication can play an integral part of the maintenance of healthy mental wellness,” she adds.

In fact, more than 1 in 10 U.S. adults took antidepressants at some point between 2015 and 2018, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Try instead:?“Do you feel you’re getting the help you need from your care team and the treatments they’re giving you?”

3. ‘I'm Not Going to Walk on Eggshells Around You’

This statement implies that you’re not open to understanding what the other person is experiencing, says Benjamin Miller, PsyD, president of Well Being Trust, a national foundation that aims to advance the mental, social, and spiritual health of Americans.

In addition, it may make your loved one feel that they are a burden, which can make them feel incredibly isolated, Geftman says.

Miller adds, “Responding with empathy and understanding can go a long way in setting the conditions for a dialogue that could be healing instead of hurtful.”

Try instead:?“If you feel comfortable talking about it, tell me more about what’s going on. I’d like to understand as much as I can.”

4. ‘But You Were Doing So Well Before!’

“A person living with depression fights as much as they can each day to persevere,” Geftman says. “Understand that experiencing periods of sadness, as well as progression plateaus, will happen, and this is part of living with depression.”

It's important to understand that depression — like many other illnesses — can seem to be in remission and then suddenly flare up. One systematic review published in the journal Clinical Psychology Review found several factors can contribute to recurring depressive symptoms, such as having another mental health condition along with depression like an anxiety disorder.

Try instead:?“What are some signs your depression is back? And if I notice the signs, what do you think might help you feel better?”

5. ‘Things Could Be So Much Worse’

Comparisons aren’t helpful, Geftman explains, because every person with depression has their own unique set of adversities. Statements like this can quickly invalidate a person’s experience by minimizing what they’re going through.

“Telling someone ‘things could be worse’ only lets them know they cannot open up about what they are going through to you,” Geftman says. “In some cases, it may make someone living with depression feel as though they should feel guilty or shameful for the way they feel, and this is never the case.”

Plus, “statements like this oversimplify the feelings and experiences associated with depression, and ultimately, people living with depression don’t need to justify their feelings to anyone,” she says.

Try instead:?“What you’re going through is real. It’s okay to ask for help. Is there something I can do to help right now?”

6. ‘You Should ... ” or “You Shouldn’t…”

“Should” and “shouldn’t” statements — for instance, “You should stop listening to sad songs and watching sad movies” — may be well-meaning, but they’re often unhelpful, Geftman says.

“Statements like these place the responsibility of a person’s mental health solely on their daily choices and actions,” she explains. “As anyone with depression can tell you, it’s often not as simple as something like cutting out sad music.”

Try instead:?“I’d like to spend more time with you. What can we do together?”

7. ‘Have You Tried X or Y?’

Questions like “Have you tried this essential oil?” or “Have you tried going out more?” can easily give the wrong impression that you think the person isn’t trying hard enough to manage their depression.

In reality, your friend or family member probably already heard that suggestion and either found it wasn’t helpful or they aren’t interested in trying it for one reason or another. “While one coping mechanism or even lifestyle change might be beneficial for one person, it’s not always as useful or meaningful for the next person,” Geftman says.

“Sometimes we have these assumptions about mental health — assumptions like a person could get better or improve their depression if they just worked harder, had more money, lived in a different place,” Miller says. “For those who have experienced depression, you know that this is not the way it works ... and it doesn’t speak to the actual mechanics of depression.”

In truth, there is no quick fix for what is a complicated mental health condition. Depression doesn’t simply spring from feeling sad or going through a rough patch. Per the Mayo Clinic, there are many possible causes of depression, which often occur together. These include:

  • Changes in hormones due to pregnancy, menopause, thyroid issues, or other health conditions
  • Differences in the structure and function of the brain
  • Having a family history of depression

Try instead:?“You’re struggling with your symptoms? That sounds really hard. How can I support you during this difficult time?”

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