18 things you should not say to somebody with depression

Even in this age of comparative enlightenment regarding mental health, where conversations about the topic are tolerated more than in previous eras, certain discourse can remain littered with insensitivity.

If you have a friend, colleague or loved one suffering with depression, avoid using the following phrases and similar alternatives when attempting to support them. Often, these phrases come from a place of affection and are born of a genuine desire to help. But we must raise the standards of our understanding and improve the quality of our discussions.

  1. “Man up”
    Any supposed correlation between masculinity and automatic emotional infallibility is outdated and deeply inaccurate. Mental illness, disorders and conditions do not discriminate. 

    Even the most physically strong, imposing, seemingly assured and outwardly confident men can and do struggle with their psychological health. That is not something to be ashamed about. 

    Telling somebody to adopt the typical trappings of manliness – stiff upper lip; hardy exterior; stoic reticence – will not provide a magic elixir for their ailments. If anything, it will likely just add to the pain and confusion. 

  2. “Have you had your happy pills today?”
    Antidepressants do not make you happy. Rather, like many more tolerated drugs, they provide relief from the immediate painful symptoms of depression, often allowing people to find the space and clarity to make necessary changes in their life.

    Perhaps we should shun the term ‘antidepressant’ and its attendant images of a catch-all solution. Perhaps selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, the most commonly prescribed family of antidepressants, should enter the mainstream parlance. After all, depression is an imbalance of serotonin in the brain, not simply a state of feeling sad. 

    Please do not refer to “happy pills.” This is belittling, insulting and alienating.

  3. “Get over it” or “Snap out of it” or “Pull yourself together”
    Depression is not a choice. Depression is not feeling sad for a short period. Depression is not a temporary swing in mood. Recovery takes time; often a very long time. It takes a holistic approach to self-analysis and self-discovery. It takes vast experimentation with different treatments, habits and lifestyles.

    We cannot simply turn off some kind of ‘depression switch,’ instantly perking up like a light being turned on. If we could do that, we would. Why would we choose to be depressed? 

    In my experience, time alone to detox from certain atmospheres, relationships and experiences was essential to finding even tenuous stability. Rushing somebody’s recovery and imploring them to get better fast will not improve the situation. They are trying their best.

  4. “Cheer up”
    By the same token, merely telling somebody to “cheer up” will not magically make this a reality for them. In my experience, it often just adds to the stress, pressure and feeling of inadequacy.

    Sometimes, we don’t want to conform to society and its smiley-faced pretences. Sometimes, we don’t have the energy to put on that mask. Sometimes, it’s enough to just be– to breathe, rest and take time to respect ourselves.
  1. “Don’t worry”
    This can be a particularly bothersome phrase to those who experience the twin struggles of depression and anxiety. Worry is a core constituent of anxiety, which often precipitates depression. 

    Managing worry can be a monumental task requiring a lifetime to master through therapy, medication, lifestyle changes and other methods. Though it may seem endearing, and often it is born of a desire to take away the pain felt by a loved one, imploring somebody not to worry can increase their panic. 

    Try to encourage them not to worry, and perhaps suggest implementing some coping mechanisms that have such an affect.

  2. “Stop taking those pills” or “Lower your dosage”
    Unless asked or prompted, you should not comment on any medication prescribed to somebody else. You certainly should not instruct other people to stop taking medication that has been prescribed by a qualified medical professional. 

    Similarly, you should never act upon such instructions, which can be misguided and ill-motivated.

    If you notice a negative change in behaviour from a loved one or associate who is taking prescribed medication, and you believe this to be a side effect of said medication, you should raise the subject in a far more respectful manner. Maybe suggest that the person has a medication review with his or her GP, but do not reiterate this point because such a situation can be humiliating.

    Respect the autonomy of other people and respect the judgement of professional doctors.

  3. “There are different kinds of antidepressant you should try”
    In a similar regard, encouraging people to experiment with different antidepressants because the behavioural changes wrought by the currently prescribed type don’t match with your idealism is highly irresponsible. 

    Have you stopped to think that, while a person may be more loquacious, confident and – as a result – ‘irritating’ due to medication, they may feel markedly better in their own mind? It may be closer to the real person, behind the terrified mask of anxiety. And just because that doesn’t match with your prior association of that individual, it does not mean the medication is necessarily unsuitable.

    Recovery and feeling yourself is more important than the perceptions of other people. 

  4. “It’s just your weakness”
    Mental (dis)order is not an attribute. Mental health cannot be boldly categorised among our strengths nor our weaknesses. Some of us struggle with mathematics; some of us aren’t blessed with a tremendous ability to write. We all have skills that are inflated in one area and lacking in another. 

    I have many weaknesses, just like everybody else. For example, I’m not especially gifted at public speaking. However, my depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder are not weaknesses. Nor are they a reflection of any deficiency in character, strength, belief or masculinity. They are conditions that exist outside of any skill. We apply skill when attempting to manage these external forces that intrude into our lives.

    We’re #SickNotWeak.

  5. “Give your head a wobble”
    It will take more than shaking my head to solve these issues, thank you very much.

  6. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself” or ““You can’t mope around forever”
    Rumination, isolation and self-exclusion can certainly be huge accelerators of depression. Such behaviours are typically tied closely to our triggers. Cognitive behavioural therapy specifically aims to identify such cause-reaction pathways and retrain the brain to respond more constructively to these situations. 

    By the same token, I also believe strongly that time alone spent positively understanding certain situations, evaluating particular relationships and reconnecting with our core purposes is hugely beneficial. The important thing here is balance. Too much of anything can throw us out of kilter. Give people time and space in which to understand and accept what is happening in their own minds. Recovery is all that matters, regardless of how long it takes or how gruesome the process.

  7. “My friend was really down and…”
    No two cases of depression are the same. We all have different environments, different beliefs, different ambitions and different pressures. There may be similarities between instances and causes common to multiple people, but the rate of development, expansion and subsequent management of depression varies infinitely.

    When we first hear that a loved one, colleague or friend has been diagnosed with depression, our instinct is to create some kind of structure around which to understand the situation. Often, this means dipping into our bank of references and previous experiences of depression. This is where the “my friend…” scenario becomes prevalent with regard to suggested treatments. 

    What worked for your friend might not work for me. Sure, it might. But there is no definitive blueprint for successful recovery from depression. There is no cookie cutter, no proven formula, no undisputed procedure.

    This can be one of the most challenging aspects of recovery, especially in the early stages of struggle. We can become overwhelmed with ideas, plans and schemes to make ourselves feel better. We should be doing this, that and the other suggested by him, her and them. 

    Do what works for you. Don’t mould your feelings to match any defined shape.

  8. “That’s just life” or “Everyone has problems”
    Indeed, life can be a trying experience. Society demands certain rites of passage at preordained times. We face immense pressure to conform, and the transition from adolescence to adulthood can be particularly troublesome as we’re exposed to new duties and expectations.

    Yes, everybody has problems. And yes, life is hard. But any insinuation that depression is merely a low tolerance of the everyday challenges we all face is deeply misguided. Depression is an illness in its own right, not simply an accumulation of life problems.

    Any mention of pain thresholds or mental fortitude should also be avoided. We’re all characters in the unfurling drama of humanity. This is not a competition.

  9. “There are people worse off than you” or “Think of the nice things you’ve got”
    When the black dog barks, it can drown out all semblance of rational thinking in our minds. We lose grasp of context and have trouble contemplating life beyond the imminent smog. Therefore, all requests to look around and admire the trinkets of comparative affluence we have accumulated fall on deaf ears. 

    Amid the darkest episodes, we simply don’t care about cars and clothes, watches and bank balances. Referring to such things as a reason to be permanently satisfied is likely to increase any feelings of shame and embarrassment.

    Moreover, those diagnosed with mental disorders often receive conflicting advice. Sometimes, we’re told not to compare ourselves with other people who may be excelling in areas that we’re struggling. Then, when such inexorable comparisons produce a dark episode, we’re told to compare ourselves with those who are apparently less fortunate. 

    A certain element of big-picture viewing is useful in analysing our environments, relationships, responsibilities and lifestyles, but this is something that must come naturally from within. Being forced by others to appreciate our material possessions, as if they somehow grant immunisation against ill health, will only have a negative impact. Don’t be that person.

  10. “You need to…” 
    You need to get out more. You need to join a gym. You need to relax. You need to switch off. You need to try yoga. You need to try meditation. You need to try aromatherapy. You need to find new friends. You need to ask the doctor for more tests. You need to forget the past. You need to chill out. You need to…

    Everybody has a theory on how they can cure your depression. Part of this is inspired by love and affection. People want you to feel better. But part of this is also born of an inherent paranoia about mental illness and a thinly-veiled mistrust of those who suffer, in my opinion.

    Listen to the medical professionals. Listen to your closest family members and those rare lifelong friends. Listen to yourself. Try not to become overwhelmed with the realms of suggested treatments. Work through informed recommendations in your own time. You will find salvation.

  11. “Have you been back to the doctors?”
    The actual battle towards recovery can be all-encompassing. It requires so much energy, belief and motivation. Accordingly, being requested to provide regular updates at every turn – to all but family and close friends – is unnecessarily draining. It can also feel like an invasion of privacy if approached in the incorrect manner.

    Rather than asking such direct and loaded questions, simply enquire compassionately as to how a person is feeling. Especially along the periphery of social and professional circles, this will act as an invitation for the person to delve into as much or as little detail as possible about their current condition. Respect the boundaries.

  12. “Therapy is a waste of money” or “How can a stranger help you?”
    During my darker depressive episodes, it can feel like I’ve lost the instruction manual to life. What am I supposed to be doing? Why am I supposed to be doing it? What is the connecting point between one thing and another? Private therapy played a major role in my recovery. It put me back together again. 

    Some close people may take offence that you won’t open up fully to them about your troubles. They may claim that rehashing your life story to a stranger will only worsen the problems. And you’re paying good money for the pleasure!?! Madness.

    Well, I cannot recommend therapy enough. I believe regular sessions can benefit everyone and anyone.

    In my experience, taking a step back, pausing, breathing and analysing every aspect of my life in a non-judgemental, unbiased environment was cathartic. To use a powerful metaphor, I entered the room for my first session and threw one hundred jigsaw pieces on the floor. Over the subsequent weeks, we gradually completed the puzzle.
  1. “It might be [insert random physical ailment] …” 
    One of the most tangible manifestations of stigma often arrives when news of your diagnosis spreads amongst the people you know. Especially within the periphery of your social and professional circle, there may be a proclivity to conjure a physical explanation for the psychological trauma you are experiencing.

    Of course, to a certain extent, this can be rooted in scientific fact. Conditions such as diabetes and vitamin b12 deficiency can have a negative impact on our mood, among many other maladies. But, sometimes, the rush to ascribe a physical rationale to a mental illness illustrates the lack of education that still surrounds this subject.

    It also highlights the inherent hostility that some people still convey towards those diagnosed with mental disorders. Deep down, there is still a fear of that sinister word. Depression!

    Generally, as a British society, we’re still in the process of rewiring our cultural belief systems so that our default reaction to mental illness is one of empathy and acceptance rather than incredulity and indignation.

    Sometimes, we’re just depressed, okay? This is an illness in its own right. There doesn’t always have to be contributing factors of a physical nature. It’s okay to not be okay.

  2. “Think positive”
    We’re trying. Honestly, we are. You never know what anybody else is truly dealing with, behind the mask. Please bear with us.

    An inability to think positively – or with any clarity or direction at all – is one of the defining symptoms of depression. If somebody was suffering with flu, struggling to breathe freely, you would not tell them to simply breathe differently. They are unable to do so. It’s a symptom of an illness, temporary or otherwise. The same is true of depression and positivity. 

    Some days, merely waking up, crawling out of bed, opening the blinds and taking a shower is a monumental achievement. We all recover at different speeds and in different ways. Encourage and support. Don’t demand and instruct.


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