Feeling that the world is falling on us and that nothing makes sense anymore can be one of the most distressing experiences in life. In the world, approximately 5% of people know exactly what it is because they suffer from depression. In these cases, having the support of the people closest to you can be providential to get out of the black hole of depression.
In fact, family understanding and support act as a protective factor. Unfortunately, mental problems are still a pending issue. No one has taught us how to help persons with depression, so many times we minimize their problems or reduce them to a mere matter of will, resorting to hackneyed phrases such as “cheer up a bit”, “it could be worse”, “do your part” or “it’s not that bad”.
Although these phrases are usually well-intentioned, they can have the opposite effect than desired, since they reveal a deep ignorance of depression and a lack of empathy, which is why they often make the person feel worse: more alone, more misunderstood, more fragile…
What to say to someone with depression: 5 phrases to connect with his/her feelings
1. Suffering is human
In a society that constantly prioritizes happiness and flaunts it like a trophy on social media, feeling bad makes us feel even worse. There is not only pressure to perform, but also to show our best face. For this reason, many people feel compelled to hide their emotions, particularly sadness, which can lead to what is known as smiling depression.
Researchers at Michigan State University found that the more you fake a smile during the day, the worse your mood will be at nightfall. Faking happiness ends up generating irritability, anger and sadness. In fact, approximately 71% of those who suffer from depression try to hide it.
For this reason, it is important to validate the depressed person’s feelings and encourage them to express them. We all go through dark periods. And we shouldn’t be ashamed of it. Talking about how we feel or the things that worry us can be useful to free ourselves from that weight or find a solution.
2. You are strong, you will be able to get out of this
Depression often goes hand in hand with low self-esteem, which is why it often convinces people to think that they are weak and can’t do anything to get out of that state. Fatigue and anhedonia also set in quickly, reducing the chance to react.
However, the simple fact that someone with depression is able to get out of bed and move on is already a show of strength. Pointing it out will help that person to combat that pessimistic vision. Depression can feel like a huge stone on the chest that prevents from moving in any direction, reminding to that person of the resilience he/she had in other difficult times can be encouraging.
It has been proven that depressed people have a bias that leads them to negatively interpret ambiguous situations, their past, and even prevents them from noticing the positive in new situations. That’s why it is important to help them remember that even though everything looks gray now, their world had colors and can be bright again. Many of the people who undergo depression therapy not only stop being depressed, but also feel happy and fully fulfilled because that episode in their lives helps them to be more resilient and optimistic.
3. I can’t imagine how you feel, but I’ll be by your side no matter what
Many people with depression feel deeply alone, not because they lack family and friends, but because they feel misunderstood. Explaining the feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, and meaninglessness that accompany depression can be extremely difficult, leading many to isolate themselves.
A study from the University of Copenhagen suggested that “we” experiences erode because the depressed persons feels profoundly different and misunderstood, an overwhelming feeling that causes them to isolate themselves and leads to social deterioration.
Telling persons with depression that perhaps we do not fully understand how they feel, but that despite this they can count on us, will serve to rebuild that essential bridge. This way we don’t presumptuously assume we know exactly what they’re feeling, but open the door for them to talk about their feelings or accept our help, without pressure.
4. You are very important to me
They are only five words, but have an enormous power. Depression is an insidious disorder that changes the perception of the world. The depressed persons may feel like a burden to others, believe that no one loves them or that they would even be better off without them.
When someone is depressed, they often lose emotional connection with others. They experience a feeling of hopelessness and pessimism that makes them lose sight of how much people care about them. Therefore, telling people with depression that they are very important to us, that we need them in our lives and that we love them can be very comforting.
We can be more specific referring to everything we appreciate or love. The idea is to rebuild affective ties that can become a support network against depression. That person should know we care and that makes a significant difference in our lives.
5. How can I help you?
“There is nothing colder than advice whose application is impossible,” said Confucius. Unsolicited advices are often seen as an intrusion into our privacy. In some cases, they can even have the opposite effect and drive away the person we want to help.
Of course, it’s understandable that we feel powerless if we don’t know how to help a depressed person, especially someone we love, but assuming we know what’s best for him/her isn’t the solution.
Instead of telling persons with depression what to do or, what is even worse, making a list of all our misfortunes so that they do not feel so miserable, it is better to ask them how we can help them. A simple “I want to be by your side, but I don’t know how to help you. Can you tell me what you need?” It is usually more beneficial and respectful than “imposing” our solution.
The truth is that there are no perfect words. The most important thing is to convey our support, empathy and compassion, even with small gestures. The depressed person must know that he/she is not alone. He/she must know that there is hope. He/she must know that we will be by his/her side. And above all, he/she must know that depression can be overcome.
Osler, L. (2022) “An illness of isolation, a disease of disconnection”: Depression and the erosion of we-experiences. Frontiers in Psychology; 13: 10.3389.
Mennen, A. C. et. Al. (2019) Attentional bias in depression, Understanding mechanisms to improve training and treatment. Curr Opin Psychol; 29: 266–273.
Werner-Seidler, A. et. Al. (2017) The relationship between social support networks and depression in the 2007 National Survey of Mental Health and Well-being. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol; 52(12): 1463-1473.
Scott, B. A. & Barnes, C. M. (2011) A Multilevel Field Investigation of Emotional Labor, Affect, Work Withdrawal, and Gender. Academy of Management Journal; 54(1): 116-136.