I have posted before about a few things that are unhelpful to say to someone who is experiencing depression (here and here) and I thought I would draw together the ten least helpful things in one post. Similar lists can be found all over the internet, of course!
1) Pull yourself together.
This, and similar comments, assume that someone who is depressed can easily stop themselves feeling depressed, and recover. It paints what is a serious mental illness as some sort of character flaw or moral laziness, something which is very easy to stop if we only want to enough. The reality is not so simple – depression is a real condition which I have never been able to argue myself out of or “pull myself up by the bootstraps” – I experience depression as a debilitating illness which saps all my strength, all my energy, all my will in a spiral of bad feelings and thoughts, which stops me enjoying anything about my life. I can only wish it were as simple to be cured as this comment suggests – the reality is that it is not.
2) Think positive!
Similar to the above, this suggests that we can “think ourselves happy.” I have tried to find my happy thoughts when I am depressed but frankly, when your brain is telling you life is a misery and you just want to end it – it is hard to find those happy thoughts. What thoughts I can dredge up seem hollow and empty and I simply do not believe in them. According to Beliefnet when depressed people try to think positively we only activate the fear centres in our brain, rather than making ourselves feel better.
3) You need to do something for others/work it off.
This is hard particularly because, as a Christian, I really should be giving back to other people. Yet when I am ill I feel completely unable to do anything, I cannot concentrate, I cannot hold a conversation, I feel useless and worthless. Telling me I should do more or work it off makes me feel guilty as well as depressed, it tells me that you think I am lazy and self absorbed, when in fact I am simply suffering from an illness – and I would not expect you to work/volunteer when you are unwell with something serious, neither should you be prescribing work as the solution to my problems when I am not fit to do so.
4) Think of other people worse off than yourself.
I covered this in my article Count Your Blessings – while I think it is important that we are grateful for our lives and for the good in our lives, and we are to give thanks to God in all circumstances – contemplating the suffering of others does not, in fact, make me feel better. It makes me feel considerably worse. You see, my brain twists that into “those people are starving, and I am depressed. If I were dead there would be more food for those people.” It also says “how can I be depressed when these people are homeless/suffering/etc – I am just a worthless excuse for a human being. I need to punish/kill myself for being so selfish.” I think that people who say this do not really realise what depression can do to the mind.
5) You need to exercise/eat the right things.
I do believe that eating right and exercising can be generally helpful for people who are depressed however having someone prescribe these things when you feel so awful can seem like an added burden on a system already over-burdened. I am finding it difficult to get out of bed, to wash, to eat – where am I supposed to get the energy and the will to get myself to the gym? And I do not need you telling me I am some sort of co-conspirator in my own affliction because I am unable to exercise, or cannot bring up the ability to shop and cook decent food. I am struggling to survive here, and you are making things too simple.
6) If you take this supplement/herb everything will be OK.
While alternative/complementary medicine has a place, many/most people with depression will be on psychiatric medication. Taking other medications, such as St John’s Wort, can be harmful if you are already on anti-depressants. Furthermore, like any medication, “natural” remedies may or may not work, or may take a considerable time to work, suggesting that if someone just takes vitamin B, or takes a herbal medicine, they will be instantly cured is irresponsible.
7) I had depression, it wasn’t so bad.
Many people have suffered depression, and depression comes in degrees. However, many people mistakenly think they are depressed when they simply have a short-term low mood – there is a difference between clinical depression and feeling a bit sad. Major depression can be soul-destroying and hearing someone say that their “depression” was nothing invalidates our experiences and makes us feel worse. Unless you too have struggled with desires to kill yourself because you felt so bad, perhaps you shouldn’t dispense advice to the depressed.
8) Make life changes.
I have had some people suggest that the cure for my depression would be a new job, get a boyfriend, even have a baby. A period of depression is not the time to make major life decisions – this is a time when the mind is altered, when we can be irrational, and it is really not the best time to decide to change your life. Sometimes, our illness forces change upon us – for example I had one job where I became ill, told my employer I had bipolar and got fired for it. That was a change – but that change heightened the illness and a week later I went into hospital. I think if I had not had that big change in my life I might have been able to avoid hospitalisation.
9) You don’t want to get better.
Of course, it is just so much fun to be depressed that we don’t want to get better at all(!) This one often comes up if I have been off sick from work – I think a lot of people assume I am lazy and workshy rather than the truth, which is that I find it terrible, absolutely terrible working when I am ill, and I have generally gone “on the sick” from work when I start having urges to hurt myself with tools at hand (e.g. by smashing my hand into a computer monitor, or “falling” down the stairs). I want, more than anything, to have a life like that of a normal person, not this weird half-life where I am always on the watch for depression and have an unpleasantly chequered work history which is steadily making me unemployable. Being depressed is disgusting, I cannot express in words how awful it is, and how desperately I have wished it to end – and I have known that feeling, when the pain in my head is so intense that the only thing I can think of to end it is to end my own life. Do you think I don’t want to get better now?
10) You don’t look depressed.
Many people, myself included, can fool people by putting on a fake smile even when we are feeling depressed. For me, it is part of my lack of confidence, I do not want to trouble people by showing them I am ill, and if I look depressed then I stand out, which I never want to do. This is known as “smiling depression” and can be dangerous, as it can mean that someone suffers, and maybe kills themselves, and no one knows. You cannot tell if someone is depressed by the look on their face – you can only know by talking to them and witnessing the pain in their heads. We should not be superficial, but consider the deeper person.
Depression can be a very serious disease, leading to pain and thoughts of suicide and self harm. We should not minimise it, say negative things about those who suffer. I would like to urge those who have friends/family who are depressed to treat them with compassion – and I will be making a follow-on post to this, on things that are helpful to say to depressed people as an effort to help.