5 Things NOT To Say To A Depressed Person and 1 Thing You Can

I have launched WordPress at least six times in order to write a blog post about mental illness.  I did after my babies were born.  I did after the shootings at Newtown, with tears still fresh on my cheek.   I never publish.  These posts that I write feel so raw, so vulnerable, so real that I can’t seem to ever publish them. And now Robin Williams has taken his own life and everybody scratches their head and wonders “why?” First, let me say that suicides come in clusters, so as we mourn this loss as a society we should be aware of the everyday people standing next to us who may not be doing so well.  The best I can offer right now is a list of things NOT to say to somebody who suffers from depression.

1.) Just Cheer Up! Be Positive!

I put this in the same category as telling a woman who just miscarried “it’s for the best” or telling somebody who lost their dearest friend “they are in a better place”.  No, no they are not.  And no, I cannot just “cheer up”.  If I could just “cheer up” then I wouldn’t have mental illness.  No, I would just be having a bad day.  Indeed, mental illness is more than just feeling bummed out.  Mental illness is a smothering blanket that extinguishes all light, all love and all hope.

2.) It’s All In Your Head

Well pardon the french, but no shit Sherlock!  It is in my head – that is why it is called ‘MENTAL ILLNESS’.  I cannot control my head. If my head was healthy – like your head – then I could manage it, but I can’t.  There is something so painful about looking into the eyes of somebody struggling with depression and hear them say, “I don’t know WHY I feel this way, I don’t want to and I wish I could make it stop”.  A person with mental illness has lost control of their brain. They intellectually know that their life is blessed, happy, robust but they don’t feel those things. Their brain prevents them from feeling happy and blessed.

3.) It’s Not a Real Illness

Or really any variation of doubting whether or not it exists or is a real thing. Unless you are a mental health expert, have lived with somebody with a mental disease, or experienced it yourself you have NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT.  Until you’ve seen an otherwise completely healthy human crippled by depression to the point where they are non-functioning and incapable of taking a shower or getting out of bed you are not allowed to have an opinion otherwise give voice to it.

4.) You Should Totally Exercise – It Releases Endorphins

OMG are you serious?! Nobody has ever mentioned that to me.  That is the most mind blowing advice I’ve ever received in my whole life.  You should write a book. Many people with depression and mental illness work out.  As a matter of fact some do this to excess and it’s called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and is frequently associated with an eating disorder. Those are also mental illnesses.  And the people who suffer with a mental illness can barely muster the energy to get out of bed and drag themselves through a work day otherwise exercise, eat, take a shower, etc.

5.) Have you tried vitamins? Green Smoothies? Kale? Flaxseed Oil? St. John’s Wort? Carrot Juice? Etc.

Most depressed people have tried EVERYTHING.  As a matter of fact they must keep trying new things in order to manage the disease. Remedies that work in the beginning stop working and they have to adjust.  Sometimes it takes a combination of a whole host of things to keep the demons at bay and every person is different.  No offense to your offer of carrot juice, but a person with depression needs to work with a medical professional and therapist in order to fine tune the treatment regime that works best for them.

What should you say?  “Please call me when you need help”.  People that suffer with depression feel alone in the sadness — ALL THE TIME.  They need constant reminders that they are not alone.  If you feel they need professional help, then help them find it.  Give them a phone number, drive them to a clinic, let them know you are there. Spend time with the person. Hug. If you are worried for their personal safety then ask them – point blank – “are you thinking of killing yourself” – if the answer is anything but a definitive “NO” then call the suicide prevention line.

I can’t help but think that every person who has taken their own life has regretted it.  Perhaps, just perhaps YOU are the very person they need to help them get back on track.

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2 thoughts on “5 Things NOT To Say To A Depressed Person and 1 Thing You Can”

  1. Hi Professor Morley,

    My boyfriend is clinically depressed. Not too long ago he attempted suicide. Right now he is recovering at his parents’ house back at Houston. I would ask him if he would ever kill himself again and he would say no. However, he continues to believe that he may never be happy in the future. I asked him if he would need a follow up therapy, but he always refuses professional help. Should I stop insisting and just believe that he would not attempt suicide again?

    More background information:
    He attempted suicide during his MCAT prep course. He never wanted to become a doctor, but he never knew what he wanted to do. After he was admitted to a psychiatric ward, his parents finally found out how serious he was about not wanting to be in the medical field. Now his parents are not pushing him towards premed. However, my boyfriend and his parents are both anxious as to what he would do now. The stress of not having a clear track replaced the stress of MCAT/medical school for my boyfriend. He still does not know “who he is”. For the coming semester, he is going to attend ATEC courses (he has an interest in filming) and finish his Psychology degree (His reason- He took too many classes for that degree already. It would be a waste not to).
    Socially, he would attempt to hang out with his old friends, but he would change his mind at the last minute and say he is busy. On the other hand, he waits for people to contact him. He would then feel sad when he has to be the one to contact them first. He said that he has given up a long time ago. He has felt this way since middle or high school.

    I am there for him, but at the same time he said he would like time for himself. We still keep in touch with each other everyday. What should I do Professor Morley?

    Victoria Tran

  2. Victoria, this is going to be a long reply so take a deep breath. First, YOU can’t fix him. This is a very hard thing for somebody in a relationship with a person who is depressed to accept, but trust me it is really important. YOU can’t make him happy. YOU can’t make him feel better.

    So, what should you do? Well, it is great that he is in a hospital and the truth is he needs to be on medication and under the care of the therapist. Since he’s a man the idea of accepting therapy may be unpleasant or seem like a sign of weakness. If that is the case then I would encourage him to take the medication – if you have to choose between therapy and meds I would start with meds. Frequently once a person feels the clouds part then therapy doesn’t seem so stressful. I would also point out all the famous men who have and are being treated for depression – a simple google search should turn up lots of great examples.

    Depression is not cured by a change in profession or location or even relationship (although all of these can be triggers or contributing factors). Depression is cured with medication and therapy. Period. I’d like to recommend a couple of books,

    “How You can Survive When They’re Depressed” by Anne Sheffield. This is a great book that outlines what you as the non-depressed partner can do and NOT do.

    “Depression Fallout” by Anne Sheffield This is another great book about setting boundaries and maintaining a relationship with somebody who is depressed.

    Depressed people can quickly turn into abusive people and so it is important that you are keeping your boundaries set and clear. Depressed people can also pull other people into their “vortex” so it is important that you stay grounded. These books will help with that.

    Remember – YOU aren’t the answer. YOU can’t make him NOT hurt himself or be happy or feel better. ONLY HE can do that, but you can try to support him and direct him and keep pointing out the path for him to take – you just can’t take the path for him.

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