A depressed mindset makes it hard to see other points of view
When it comes to providing encouragement, there might not be a harder case then dealing with someone you care about who is suffering from depression. As someone who has suffered from bouts of depression since I was 12, including a seriously severe bout that lasted a full four to five years spanning from my late twenties to my early thirties, I know how soul crushing depression can be. While many friends and family members wanted to encourage me, many of them didn't understand how to help or would often say things that I knew were meant to help me out, but frankly often seemed glib or insulting at the time. Many of them didn't understand that depression is a disease, a mental disease for sure, but a disease nonetheless.
How does this matter when it comes to comforting the depressed?
This is important, because it helps to explain the mindset of someone who is going through a bout of depression. The hardest part is accepting that there's never a perfect thing to say, and sometimes the best thing you can do is simply be there in support and try not to say the wrong things.
Simply put: when you are looking at trying to comfort a person who is depressed, it's important to understand there is often a constant narrative going on in the head of the person who is depressed. Think of depression as an endless (literally - a second to second, minute to minute) fight between the non-functioning depressed brain and the part of your brain trying to use logic, reason, and see the silver linings. The depressed brain says over and over how worthless the person is, how everyone saying something nice is lying or condescending or just doesn't get it, and it just wears down the person until there is no energy, no sunlight, no way to force your emotions to listen to logic and reason over the endless narrative of self-hate.
Think about that perspective, struggling with that point of view, and it quickly becomes easy to understand why so many supportive words can come across as shallow, or even outright condescending. Each person's direct narrative and what is most hurtful or most effective with them will be different from one depressed person to another.
One of the best first person narratives on depression out there
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Searching for color in a world of gray
Fantastic picture representing the gray world of depression
A wonderfully expressive public domain picture by photographer George Hodan representing depression. I love the way a dob of bright color still appears so isolated and alone against the juxtaposition of black and white from the rest of the world. Original image can be found at:
Outstanding TED talk on depression: Kevin Breel's talk is a great one
So what advice can we actually have for giving support?
Hey even in the best of time verbal support can be really hard to give to friends or to people you care about. When dealing with depression, each situation is different and even as someone suffering wants to push you away, knowing you're there for them DOES matter. What the person really doesn't want are empty platitudes, really empty promises of things getting better, or "hollow" encouragement.
So while the following phrases or strategies might seem like a good idea, or might seem like the "safe" thing to say, at least in my experience, they're not. Avoid:
- "I'll pray for you." Well intentioned, I'm sure, but it comes across as dismissive.
- "Cheer up," or "Look at the bright side." These just seem really annoying at best, and completely missing the point of depression at worst. At best these phrases come across as dismissive with little actual concern for the person. It also shows little thought for depression as an affliction. You wouldn't tell a person with a broken arm to just un-break it or a cancer patient to try not having cancer, so don't use these on someone with depression.
- "Have you tried not being depressed." It should be really obvious why not to say that - but if not look at the "don't have cancer" reference in the previous bullet point.
- "You need to toughen up" or "Just pull up your boot straps." In the mind of a depressed person, they are going to hate themselves more than anyone else can. Shaming them into being normal again, aside from not making any sense at all, just won't work.
Sometimes even hearing "I don't understand what you're going through but I'm sorry you're suffering and I'm here for you," is enough. Maybe it's not. However in this case it's certainly better than the alternatives, and sometimes avoiding the huge landmines is the best start you can have in being there for a friend or loved one and supporting them through their depressive bouts.
Not Alone: another great book dealing squarely with depression
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