Depression can be a powerful force in a person’s life. It brings very unique and diverse forms of pain, it makes people feel and do things they wouldn’t normally, and it also causes very counterintuitive and confusing symptoms, making it notoriously difficult to soothe. Compiled here is a list of tips for comforting a depressed person, as well as a few common mistakes and misconceptions about how to allay their symptoms, that I’ve gathered through my own experience with the disease. They are designed to help you, the unaffected, better ease the mind of someone you know who suffers from depression*.
Be ready to accept that you can’t always make it better.
Depression is a disease. It exists, it can be measured, and just because it can’t be seen with the naked eye doesn’t mean it isn’t real. And just like any other disease, talking through it can be very helpful, but talk alone will not cure it. Someone who is in the midst of a depressive episode may be literally physically incapable of cheering up. So don’t feel badly about your caretaking skills if talking to them doesn’t make them feel 100 percent better, and more importantly, don’t blame them if their depression persists despite your best efforts.
Don’t tell them to hold out hope for a cure.
There is no cure for depression. At best, its symptoms can be treated, and the illness can go into remission (sometimes even permanently), but the possibility that it will strike again always exists. It’s not wrong to dream about a cure, but an entire lifetime could be wasted waiting for one. Holding out hope for a fix-all that doesn’t exist is a great way to end up feeling even more let down, which is certainly not what a depressed person needs. So instead of telling them that they should wait for a cure, it’s better to help them figure out methods that they can use to guard against the very real possibility of relapse. Which brings us to the next tip:
Help them help themselves.
Fatigue and lack of motivation are two extremely prevalent symptoms of depression. Someone who is suffering from the illness likely spends most or all of their energy just performing daily tasks like maintaining hygiene and accessing food, and so has nothing left over at the end of the day that they can use to advocate for their own treatment. (This is not their fault.) However, finding the right therapist, psychiatrist, support group, and so on takes a lot of time and research and can be exhausting. That’s why, oftentimes, one of the best things you can do for someone with depression is help them find help, so that they can reserve their energy for simply surviving. Research different types of therapy. Cast about for local doctors. Take on the responsibility of coordinating their treatment – if they give you permission to do so, of course, and if helping them won’t create a sense of helplessness for them.
Your greatest tool: “I’m so sorry, that must be awful.”
If you’ve never experienced depression, there is simply no way in the world to describe to you precisely what it feels like. It simply isn’t possible to know what it’s like to be less fortunate than you are. And those who are less fortunate than you are going to pick up on it if you try. That’s why phrases like “I know what you mean” and “I was depressed for a day once too” are best left out of your lexicon when you’re trying to comfort a depressed person, because trying to relate to someone who has had such a different experience than you is probably just going to make you sound phony and condescending, however kind your intentions may be. However, you don’t need to know what depression feels like in order to be compassionate toward someone who suffers from it. That’s why offering them a simple “I’m so sorry” can be very powerful. “I’m so sorry, I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” “I’m so sorry, I wish there were more I could do to help.” It’s okay to admit it when you can’t relate. In fact, doing so may actually help them feel better, because it shows them that you’re not pretending to know how they feel.
Listen to what they need – don’t assume you already know.
Depression is a deceitful, lying monster that twists normal wants and needs upside down. It is by its nature counterintuitive. That’s why, when someone you know is breaking down, it’s critically important to ask questions instead of assuming you know what will make them feel better: “What do you want to do right now?” “Can I do anything for you?” “What do you need to hear from me?” Of course, it’s important to use discretion when carrying out their wishes; if they want to sleep all day every day, for example, that will only make the condition worse, so for the sake of their health you probably shouldn’t honor that request. Regardless of what they want, however, if you make the wrong move because you didn’t talk to them first, their mood will be all the worse for it, and they may feel they’ve lost you as a confidant. Instead, ask them directly about what they need, and they will likely feel more comforted knowing that their opinion is important to you.
Focus on how they’re feeling now, not how they might be feeling in the future.
This guideline especially is a matter of personal preference, as different people like to hear different things when they’re down, so my best advice is to ask your depressed loved one where they stand on this subject (before an episode occurs, preferably). That being said, when a person is suffering from depression, they’re often unable to see a positive future for themselves. Because their negative outlook is a pathological symptom, they are literally unable to see a future that doesn’t hurt. That’s why it’s a good idea to keep conversation in the here-and-now. Phrases that place emphasis on how they’ll feel later, like “you’ll be better tomorrow,” or “you won’t be depressed forever,” or my all-time least favorite, “everything will be okay,” (how can you know that for sure?) can actually make the situation worse, because statements like that just draw attention to the person’s belief that they will be sick forever. Again, this sort of thinking is a symptom, not a choice, and you certainly will not be able to change their mind about it when they’re symptomatic. Instead, try giving compassion that relates only to the present moment by saying things like “I’m so sorry you’re in pain” and “the way you feel is understandable and valid”. Focus on their immediate distress instead of looking to the future, because this moment is the most important one.
Acknowledge their mental pain like it’s any other kind.
Have I mentioned that depression is a real disease? One of the best ways to make a suffering person feel worse quickly is by invalidating their experience, their feelings, or their illness. Treating depression like it’s “just a bad mood” or “not a real disease” does all of those things. In fact, stigma around mental illness is so ubiquitous and overwhelming that sometimes even the sick don’t believe they’re sick! Being in a support role for a depressed person is a great opportunity to remind them that their suffering is real despite whatever falsehoods anyone propagates about it. And they’ll doubtless appreciate hearing another person acknowledge the reality of their pain.
Don’t tell them they always have to fight – give them permission not to (at least for now).
Fighting mental illness day in and day out is exhausting. When a depressed person uses a thousand therapeutic techniques to try to change how they feel every day, it drains their energy and their fighting spirit, which they need in order to survive in the long term. Someone who is chronically sick will run out of strength from time to time, and when they do, they’re going to want to take a break and just succumb to the depression. And every once in awhile, under careful and well-monitored circumstances, it’s okay to let them do just that. That’s where you come in: few things are as comforting to a sick person as having someone they care about nurture them while they temporarily stop trying to stay one step ahead of a chronic illness. It may be tough to give them permission to let go of the fight for a little while, but if you don’t guide them through that period of time, they might end up going it alone, which can be an awful, traumatizing, and potentially dangerous experience. They deserve a break every once in awhile, and it could mean the world to them if you’re there for it. (Giving in to depression is not always the best strategy, of course, if the ill person refuses to take up the fight again, or if they’re suicidal and need to put all their energy toward hanging on.) And speaking of suicide:
Validating suicidal thoughts does not equal validating suicidal actions.
I can’t begin to emphasize the importance of this point. Imagine this: someone you care about tells you they’re having thoughts of seriously hurting themselves. How do you talk them down without saying the wrong thing and making them feel worse? To answer this question, it’s important to realize that a suicide attempt consists of two distinct components: self-harming actions, which should be prevented wherever possible; and self-harming desires, which are internal and can’t be seen or measured like actions can. So here’s the key concept: it’s possible to have suicidal thoughts without acting on them – in fact, the desire to die often exists without precipitating an attempt at all. If someone feels that you reject the existence of their suicidal pain when you’re really just trying to reject their suicide, they’re probably going to feel gaslighted, which is not going to help them stay safe. Therefore, it’s crucial to validate the pain that’s making them think dark thoughts without validating the harmful behaviors that can arise from those thoughts. It’s very possible to let someone know their feelings make sense, while also making sure they realize that the actions they want to take because of those feelings don’t make sense at all. This point is especially salient because suicidal tendencies often get repressed internally and fester until they’re unbearable, so hearing even one person say “I understand why you feel this way” can make a depressed person feel more accepted and less scared of their own impulses. So long as you don’t give them permission to act on those impulses, it’s okay to give them permission to feel impulsive – and knowing that someone sympathizes with what they’re experiencing can go a long way toward helping them feel better.
If the number or complexity of these tips feels overwhelming to you, don’t worry: no one gets them all right every time. Unfortunately, chances are you’ll have multiple opportunities to practice your caretaking techniques if your loved one suffers from depression chronically. Just do the best you can, try to learn from your mistakes, listen when they tell you what they need, and remember that anything you can do to help a depressed person can make all the difference in the world to them.
*These tips will probably make them feel better. Everyone experiences depression differently and responds uniquely to varying types of support. My very best advice, then, is to ask them what they’ll find helpful if they become depressed, and more importantly, ask them if they would find any of these tips harmful, which is always a possibility. That conversation is best to have before a crisis happens.