I know, I know. This post just screams of passive-aggression. Believe me when I say I don’t intend it that way.
It’s just that when I decide that I trust someone enough to tell them that I’d been diagnosed with depression and going through a bad blip right now, more often than not I see one of these three reactions:
- The deer-caught-in-headlights kind of reaction where you can see the person thinking “oh God, I really don’t know how to respond to that.”
- Disbelief. That person you’ve seen every week for goodness knows how many years… And depression? Those two are the epitome of juxtaposition!
- Verbal diarrhoea of advice. Meditation, take all the antidepressants, never take antidepressants, mindfulness, positive thinking, eating healthily, do more exercise!
Don’t get me wrong. I know that when someone comes to you and tells you they’re struggling, your first instinct is to see how you can help them. I know full well that everyone whom I’ve told that I’m having a tough time cares about me deeply. I don’t resent anyone if they’ve said any of these things to me. Just do bear in mind that sometimes it’s not the most helpful thing to hear there and then.
“You don’t seem depressed!”
I got this one a few times. I get why people have said it to me. Yes, apart from this depression thing that sometimes gets the better of me I’m quite a bubbly, energetic person who laughs a lot. Maybe that’s all you’ve seen of this person and it’s quite hard to accept that they’re struggling with depression. Maybe you don’t want to accept that they have depression. All of this is understandable.
Do bear in mind that depression is like any other illness and affects everyone differently. It may be a new onset depression, in which case you’re right in thinking that you’ve never seen this person depressed before. It may be that they’re spending an exhausting amount of energy on keeping up a cheerful appearance and keeping people from seeing how they’re really feeling. I, for one, know that hanging around an overtly depressed person is like having bamboo splinters shoved under your nails. It’s downright miserable for you too. So for the sake of their relationships there may be times when they plaster a cheerful appearance to hide the crap, intrusive thoughts bubbling underneath.
If you break your leg and someone tells you that “your leg seems fine, I always see you running around the football pitch! And, anyway, it looks straight,” it’s easy to imagine that you don’t feel support or empathy. I know you don’t intend it like that, but saying that someone doesn’t seem depressed might make someone feel unvalidated at a time they need the most support.
An alternative: “how are you doing today?”
Sometimes all I need is a hug and a friend telling me that they’re there for me. However, if you decide that talking to this person feels too much like the bamboo-under-nails situation, it’s okay to step away. Supporting a friend with depression is exhausting. It’s important to let them know that it’s not personal and they’re always welcome to come to you providing you feel like you’re able to help.
“Have you tried <insert tried and tested method of battling depression>?”
You might have heard that your second cousin’s best friend’s great-uncle had major clinical depression and once he’d tried meditation all of his symptoms disappeared immediately, never to be mentioned again. And I get that you want this for the person who’ve just admitted that they’re depressed.
Just like any other condition, however, decisions of treatment and management lies with the patient. GPs, doctors, counsellors, psychiatrists, friends, and family all can give their own input. And, indeed, their input may be valuable. But a patient ultimately has autonomy and (unless they’re Sectioned, but that’s another story) they get to decide what’s best to control their symptoms, whether it’s to take medication, psychotherapy, counselling, all of the above or none of the above. They are the person most qualified to assess their symptoms since they live with them 24/7.
If you break your leg and it’s in plaster, then someone comes to you and says: “don’t you know that plaster casts don’t actually do anything to the leg? You have to let the leg heal itself. It’s better to take a non-clinical approach! And I heard that my friend had a plaster cast and her joint is now permanently weaker!” you’d be forgiven for being a little annoyed. Replace “plaster cast” with “antidepressants” and “leg” with “mind” and you might see why I get the urge to bang my head against a brick wall for every alternative suggestion.
An alternative: “how can I help?”
One massive, massive exception to the rule is that when you think the person you’re helping is at risk of harming or killing themselves. If you find ten packets of paracetamols and a bottle of whisky hidden in their bedside drawer and you suspect they’ll take them all at once, it’s time to drag them to the local A&E.
“Just cheer up!”, “You’re not trying,” or “<insert some synonymous variation of the above>”
Depression is largely invisible. I get that trying to get your head around it may be as hard as convincing yourself of the existence of the pink, fluffy unicorn that your six-year-old claims had eaten the last cookie in the box. But please, please give us the benefit of doubt just this once and believe we’re really trying.
Again, if you’ve broken your leg and someone says to you: “maybe you need to, you know, try walking a bit harder? You barely tried not using your crutches,” you would agree that it sounds a little ridiculous. It hurts when someone says that your effort is not good enough.
An alternative: “the bad days don’t last”
Someone with depression may be suffering with serious tunnel vision that makes them genuinely believe that they’re in a deep, bottomless black hole they’ll never escape. It’s good to remind them once in a while that, like any other illness, they may someday recover.
Sorry. I know you say it with the best intentions. I know you say it cause you love me. I’m ending this post with a few words saying that I honestly appreciate all the help, support, and words that you’ve all given me, whether or not I deem them helpful. So thank you, again, for everything.