No one wants to see loved ones in pain, but it can be challenging to know what to say to a depressed person. It’s normal to worry about saying the wrong thing or knowing the right words to express how much you care.
If you’re not sure how to talk to someone who is depressed, don’t worry—it may be simpler than you think. With the right info and attitude, you can learn to communicate compassionately with the people you love when mental health issues are present.
The term depression applies to a group of disorders that share a common symptom—they impact your mood. Depending on the specific condition, the symptoms of depression vary. But here are some of the most common signs and symptoms:
- Changes in weight or appetite
- Increased irritability or anger
- Canceling plans
- Seeming bored or disinterested
- Loss of interest in sex
Sometimes these changes are noticeable, like when a once-dedicated student starts failing classes or when a friend grows apathetic towards hobbies about which they used to have great passion.
However, in other cases, people may continue to function with depression, hiding their symptoms to avoid burdening others or being perceived as weak. Plus, people with clinical depression are also more likely to experience other mental health conditions, including anxiety, substance use issues, and sleep disorders.
If you suspect a loved one might be depressed, check in with them. Clear, direct communication around mental health issues can help open up space for a conversation in an understanding and judgment-free atmosphere.
What to say
Getting started is usually the most challenging part of learning how to talk to someone who is depressed. Sometimes having an idea of what to say ahead of time can help ease you both into the conversation.
1. I see your pain, and it matters to me.
It’s common for people experiencing depression to believe that no one cares about them. You can let your loved one know you understand how serious mental health is, which helps to validate their feelings and reassure them that they’re not alone. They will be more open with you when they see you’re coming from a place of concern rather than judgment.
2. I’m not going anywhere.
People with depression often worry that they will drive their friends and family away by being a “downer.” If you plan on staying by their side, tell them. The voice of depression can be persuasive, so even if you think your loved one already knows they can count on you, it may help to say it out loud.
3. It’s not your fault.
Mental health conditions are involuntary. The notion that depression is something people can “just snap out of” is harmful and contradicts the scientific research and medical understanding of depressive conditions.
Despite society’s advances in understanding depression, the myth that it’s a moral failure is still prevalent, even among those experiencing it. Reminding them that it’s not their fault lets them know you aren’t judging them and reminds them that they have permission to stop being so hard on themselves.
4. I’m sorry it hurts so much.
The first step to supporting someone with an invisible illness is to believe that what they’re going through is real—acknowledging their pain and expressing concern shows compassion and understanding.
5. How can I help?
Asking for help can be very challenging for some people, even when they really need it. Offering support will let them know that they aren’t imposing on you.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to offer support in concrete, specific ways. Try something like, “would you like to go for a walk together? I can come to you.”
They may not always take you up on it, but it can be comforting to know that you’re there for them regardless. If you’re looking for constructive suggestions, learn how to help someone with depression.
6. What is it like for you?
Supporting someone with depression isn’t about having the right answers. It’s about asking the right questions. Asking them to explain what they’re going through gives them the floor. It allows them to do most of the talking and takes the pressure off of you. All you have to do is listen.
7. You deserve to feel better.
It’s not uncommon for people to blame themselves for having depression. They may even be ashamed of it or think it’s a sign of weakness. Hearing that they deserve to feel better reinforces that depression is not their fault and may make them more willing to seek the care and treatment that feels right for them.
What not to say
Sometimes when people misunderstand depression, they make comments that hurt more than they help. The good news is that it’s completely avoidable if you take the time to learn about what to say to someone with depression.
1. “It’s all in your head.”
Depression doesn’t just exist in the mind; it has physical symptoms, as well. It’s associated with a reduction in mass in regions of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, among other things.
Though the causes of depression aren’t fully understood, research indicates that factors like genetics, environment, and early life trauma play a role. These are all conditions out of someone’s control. This isn’t an issue one can “snap out of.” Recovery is possible, but it’s going to take time, just like any other injury or illness requires time to heal.
2. “You need to stop being so dramatic.”
Tough love might help some people in some situations, but accusing someone with depression of being dramatic isn’t beneficial. In fact, it can exacerbate feelings of guilt and shame, which can lead to social withdrawal and worsening emotional and physical symptoms.
For people with depression, isolation can be dangerous. Be open-minded and try to be curious about what the experience is like for them.
3. “Lots of people have it worse.”
Pointing to others’ suffering isn’t an effective strategy to help someone with depression. Try to be optimistic without minimizing what your loved one is going through.
For example, you could say something like, “I know this is hard, but don’t forget you have a family who loves you and is going to stand by you.” Or “I know it doesn’t seem like it, but you have a future to look forward to. We’re going to see you through this.”
4. “There’s no use in complaining. If you want a better life, you will have to work for it.”
Depression isn’t related to how hard someone works or their attitude about working. In fact, we’ve seen depression in people like Abraham Lincoln, Florence Nightingale, and Marie Curie. It’s also a prevalent disorder among members of the armed forces and those working in healthcare.
Depression is not a product of weakness; it’s a complex condition with many possible causes that can affect anyone.
5. “Have you tried yoga/eating better/spending more time outdoors?”
None of these are bad ideas, but you should be careful with how you bring them up. Your loved one has likely heard that exercise and diet can help but may not be in the state of mind to make significant lifestyle adjustments. Feel free to invite them to go on hikes with you or try a yoga class, but avoid trying to “fix” their depression.
Starting the conversation
When you’re in an intimate relationship with someone experiencing depression, breaking the ice can be intimidating. But you can give yourself the best shot at being helpful if you keep an open mind, let your loved one do most of the talking, and make sure they’re safe.
Here are a few ways you could get the conversation started:
- “I noticed you hadn’t seemed quite yourself lately. Is everything alright?”
- “I just wanted to check in with you to see how you’re doing. Are you okay?”
- “You mentioned feeling down. How are you doing now?”
Your loved one may not want to tell you everything all at once, and that’s okay. Think of the purpose of this initial conversation as an opportunity to let them know you care and are a safe person if they do feel like talking.
If your loved one decides to open up, focus on listening to them and letting them know you care about them. Take things one step at a time, and let them set the pace.
Suicide warning signs
No one wants to think their loved one may be considering self-harm or suicide, but it’s essential to be familiar with common warning signs. It can be a good idea to make a plan if you think your loved one might hurt themself.
Sadness, apathy, and irritability are all associated with an increased risk for suicide, but so are sudden improvements to mood. If something feels off, check in with your loved one.
If you hear your loved one saying the following, ask them if they’re having thoughts of suicide:
- “I just want to go to sleep and never wake up.”
- “Everyone would be better off without me.”
- “I have lost all hope, and I just want the pain to stop.”
People contemplating suicide will often admit it when asked, so don’t be afraid to ask clearly and directly if you’re concerned.
Asking doesn’t increase the likelihood that your loved one will hurt themselves, nor will it plant the idea in their head. Under these circumstances, it’s better to be straightforward.
Many behaviors that precede suicide look like behaviors that frequently accompany depression. For example, increased alcohol use, social withdrawal, and irritability are associated with major depression and suicidality.
But some behaviors stand out as indicators of suicidality. These are things like:
- Giving away possessions
- Driving recklessly
- Having unsafe sex
- Purchasing a firearm or other weapon
- Using the internet to research ways of committing suicide
Look for behaviors that indicate they don’t value their own life or believe they will have to live with negative consequences.
Keep in mind that not everyone will show the same signs; some may not even show symptoms at all. The bottom line is to trust your instincts and err on the side of caution.
What to do if someone is considering suicide
If you believe someone is in immediate danger, stay with them and call the National Suicide Prevention hotline at 1-800-273-8255. If you’re not physically with them, call 9-1-1 and give the operator their location.
- Depression is a complex mood disorder characterized by changes in mood.
- Though it’s not possible for you to cure someone’s depression, it is possible to help by being a supportive and understanding ally.
- Avoid making assumptions about depression and focus on learning more about it.