Depression has a way of being an all-consuming, monster of a battle. It takes a toll physically and emotionally. It’s often stigmatized. But perhaps one of the biggest struggles for those who suffer is the feeling that no one else in the world can truly understand what they’re going through.
However, those feelings of isolation provide one of the biggest opportunities for loved ones to help, explains Gregory Dalack, M.D., chair of the department of psychiatry at the University of Michigan.
“The key thing is to help the [depressed] person know that you understand that they’re ill,” he tells The Huffington Post. “A lot of people view depression as some sort of character flaw. To let someone know that you understand that this is an illness that needs to be treated is important.”
The fact is, depression isn’t an easy fight — but you don’t have to suffer from it in order to be a source of comfort for those who do. If you’re looking to support someone with depression but can’t exactly figure out what to say, mental health experts offer the seven suggestions below — and explain why these types of phrases matter.
“I’m here for you.”
Sometimes the smallest gestures go a long way, Dalack explains. By telling someone with depression that you’re there for them — and then really showing it — you’re probably helping more than you realize. “It requires a little reflection and thought to be supportive,” Dalack says. “Family members, friends and significant others have an opportunity to help in a way that’s not judgmental — even if it’s just helping them get to appointments, take medications or stick to a daily routine.”
“You’re not alone.”
Depression can feel like driving through a dark tunnel that you’re navigating alone. It’s important for loved ones to make it clear to those suffering that they don’t have to journey through the disorder by themselves, says Adam Kaplin, M.D., an associate professor in the departments of psychiatry and neurology at Johns Hopkins.
“It may look incredibly bleak for them right now,” he says. “It’s helpful to remind them that the feelings are temporary and you’ll be right there with them. Say, ‘It’s you and me against the depression, and we will win.’”
“This is not your fault.”
Letting loved ones know that depression isn’t their fault is crucial to the healing process, Dalack says. “Sometimes folks with depression feel that it happens because there is something wrong with them,” he explains. “When you have the flu, you can’t remember what it feels like to feel good. Well, when your brain is the main target of the illness, it’s even harder to deal with because your mind is affected along with the rest of your body — but you feel like it’s your fault. It’s important to convey that you understand that they’re suffering from an illness almost in the same way as they suffer from the flu.”
For those who don’t understand the complicated nuances of depression, telling someone to “buck up” or asking what they have to be sad about may seem logical. However, phrases like these suggest that depression is something they’re choosing to live with, Dalack says.
“Those all imply that there’s something that the person is doing to get them into that state,” he says. “It’s not their choice, just like it’s not your choice to get the flu. You didn’t ask for it and you’re not going to snap out of it. If we don’t think of depression in the same way, then you increase the likelihood that someone is going to victimize themselves.”
“I’ll go with you.”
This goes for therapy sessions, doctor appointments or even just the pharmacy. “It’s not going to be an overnight cure, but being there during the process of treatment can help them see it through,” Dalack says. “The only thing harder than encouraging someone to seek treatment is getting them to follow through and complete it. By offering to go with them, you’re not only being supportive, but you’re telling them that what they have is treatable and not just brushing it off as something that’s no big deal.”
“What can I do for you?”
Another way to be supportive is doing something actionable, Kaplin says. By offering to do something with them — whether it’s going for a walk or just sitting on the couch — you’re sending the message that you’re open to being a source of comfort. That also means keeping a normal, day-to-day schedule.
“It’s important to help those suffering from depression by encouraging them to keep doing the things necessary to maintaining their daily balance,” he says. “That includes keeping a routine for sleeping, eating, exercising and socializing. It sounds simple but they’re critically important.”
“What kind of thoughts are you having?”
Kaplin also stresses the importance of checking in with loved ones when they’re battling the disorder. This includes discussing any suicidal thoughts, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
“Don’t be afraid to ask your loved ones what they’re thinking,” Kaplin says. “Depression can be a lethal illness. The ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality puts people in grave harm. Asking never makes people worse — not asking risks missing knowing about something terrible.”
When it comes to how to ask if someone is having suicidal thoughts, Kaplin says it’s best to approach it with compassion. “You have to normalize the thoughts, but stigmatize the behavior,” he says. “Explain that it’s normal to have those thoughts with depression, but [suicide] as a result of those thoughts shouldn’t be an option.”
Nothing at all.
Sometimes your presence alone can be supportive enough for someone who is suffering from depression, Kaplin explains. What you may think is a simple action can actually be a large gesture.
“A major component of helping people is just showing up,” he says. “The most important thing to say is in your actions as well as your words. It lets that person know that you’re not giving up. It shows that you’re there for them.”