Support Depressed Loved Ones: The Dos and Don’ts of What to Say

Supporting a loved one with depression requires compassion and patience. There is a fine balance necessary to navigate conversations about their mental well-being. Knowing what to say and what not to say can be challenging. Your words and actions can have a profound impact on their recovery journey. Before jumping into a heavy conversation with them, you must prepare.

Before Speaking or Visiting Them

If you know of someone struggling with depression and you want to help, there are a few steps you should take before talking or meeting with them.

1. Choose a Good Time and Place

If you’re stressed or going through something yourself, it might not be the time to have an in-depth conversation about what they’re going through. As important as the timing of the conversation is, ensuring you have a comfortable, private, and safe place to discuss what’s happening with them is essential.

2. Remind Yourself What You’re Not

Unless you’re a licensed therapist, it’s not your job to provide advice or be available to them 100% of the time–even therapists have a work-life balance. You can support and encourage them to seek professional help, but respect your boundaries and limitations.

3. Recognize Your Hang-ups

No one is perfect, and most people find it uncomfortable to reach out and socialize with someone with depression–the more severe, the more awkward it can be. Recognize your discomfort, prepare for it, and set it aside. Go a step further and even voice it to your friend, saying something like, “I’m really awkward opening up about feelings, but I’m doing this because I really care about you.” Because it can be difficult, review these dos and don’ts about what to say:

Do Ask Open-Ended Questions

If you’re struggling with where to start, avoid judgmental statements and come from a place of concern. Use a casual observation statement and an open-ended question to get the conversation going. Some examples are:

  • I’ve noticed you haven’t been attending our friend group’s monthly hangout. Is there anything going on?
  • I’ve noticed you’re a bit low recently. Is there anything you want to talk about?

Continue using open-ended questions as much as possible throughout the conversation to keep them sharing without putting words in their mouth.

Don’t Minimize or Dismiss Their Feelings

Depression can happen regardless of a person’s appearance of good fortune. Statements like “Oh, but you have so much to be happy for,” “It’s not that bad,” or “But you always look so happy” sounds insensitive. These statements either minimize or dismiss their feelings. They can make loved ones feel guilty, alone, and less likely to open up or reach out.

Do Offer Validation and Affirmation

Individuals suffering from depression often struggle with self-worth and feeling like they don’t matter. Help them understand their feelings are valid, especially since they may try to invalidate their own statements. Try “Your feelings matter, and they’re important to me.”

If you’ve been through a similar bout of depression, use your own experiences to express empathy. But ensure you really do understand before you say you do. It’s okay to not fully understand. It’s enough to say, “I’m here for you. I can’t fully understand what you’re going through, but I’m trying. I’m here to listen and support you.”

Don’t Compare Their Experience to Others

Even a well-intentioned example to show them they can get through this doesn’t typically have the desired effect. Avoid saying, “I know someone who went through the same thing, and they’re doing just fine now.” Comparison can be a dangerous game and may be a contributing factor to their depression. These “inspiring” stories can make your loved one lash out, or internalize it and wonder why they can’t be fine too.

Do Encourage Professional Help

If the topic of professional help comes up, do your best to encourage their development of openness to the idea. If they don’t bring it up, you can try “What are your thoughts about speaking to someone else about this?” Be prepared for different scenarios:

  • They may be open to visiting their family doctor but don’t want to “see a shrink.” You could explain that general practitioners can prescribe and monitor antidepressant responses.
  • If they’re opposed to medication, you explain how there are many alternative depression treatments to antidepressants. For example, there’s TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation), that’s a quick, medication-free depression treatment option.

But if they’re quick to shut it down, respect their feelings. On that note…

Don’t Offer Unsolicited Advice

Even if your advice is well-meaning, your friend is likely getting an earful of advice. They may want to have a conversation without the pressure or guilt that comes along with advising.

Avoid statements that start with “You should try…” or questions like, “Have you tried…” It’s a quick way to shut the conversation down.

Do Keep in Mind

You don’t always have to be talking to provide support. Sometimes, being physically present is enough to help your loved one feel cared for. Finally, always communicate your plan to check in and ask if that’s okay with them. If you promise to do so, then follow through. Don’t disappear on them even if they reject your initial plan. Continue providing support in any way they will accept. They may have a change of heart, so don’t give up on them. Your words and actions can make a significant difference to your loved ones.