As a society, we’re getting better at talking about mental health and, as a result, the stigmas around it are slowly breaking down.
However, there’s still a lot of work to be done. It’s not hard to find advice on what not to say to people struggling with depression – which of course is a good thing, as it educates us on casual phrases that could be potentially offensive or triggering. However, less is discussed about what you should say to someone with depression, and without it we run the risk of shutting down conversations altogether.
With that in mind, we spoke to Rachel Baird, spokesperson from the Mental Health Foundation, about things to say to a friend or loved one suffering from depression. Here’s what she advises.
So as not to take away the power from the person in question, Baird says, “It’s important to at least ask about their wishes and to seek permission. You could say, ‘I can see that things are hard for you right now – would it be okay if I sat with you for a while? Or do you want to talk about it?’”
“If you know the person well, it’s worth sitting with them to talk about what they might need from you when times are hard.” Everyone’s needs are unique, so it will better equip you to know what to do next time.
It’s okay not to ask questions.
It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of depression, which often results in asking lots of questions to try and figure out what we can do and how we can help.
However, Baird says, “In the depths of depression, people often don’t know what they need or want, or they don’t believe they deserve or are entitled to things anyway. That can make facing questions hard, because either you don’t know the answers, or you don’t feel you can be honest. Often, people who are depressed won’t want to be asked lots of questions.”
Ask open-ended questions.
This doesn’t mean questions are off the table – just be selective with what you do ask. Baird suggests asking open-ended questions so there’s not too much pressure on the answer.
“Questions that don’t result in a yes or no answer,” she explains. “Also – without treating the person like a child or patronizing them – remember that complex language or too much detail can be hard to understand.”
Ask them if they’re having suicidal thoughts.
While not everyone with depression has suicidal thoughts, some do. Asking if your friend is having suicidal thoughts might seem like a scary thing to do, especially as it is still a relatively taboo subject. Baird says, “Asking about suicide does not encourage it, nor will it make the other person start thinking about it. In fact, by asking, you may be starting a potentially life-saving conversation.” If they are expressing these thoughts, Baird adds, “Assure your loved one that, with help, their suicidal feelings will pass with time.”
Even if you’re not asking them directly about suicide, you can still be there for them. “Try to remember that talking with them and showing you care may make all the difference,” Baird advises.
“Watch out for signs of distress or uncharacteristic behavior, such as withdrawing from other people, being very quiet or irritable, having uncharacteristic outbursts, or talking about death or suicide.”
Encourage them to talk to others.
Unless you’re a trained medical professional, it can be tough to know how to talk to a loved one with depression. That’s why Baird recommends encouraging your loved one to seek help from a GP or health professional.
It’s also important that you take care of yourself, she adds. “Take time to look after yourself and consider seeking support.”