Things to say to depressed people.
This post comes out a response to a post a that was shared on Facebook. I can’t find the exact one, but this one here will do. While the post might be well intentioned, it:
- Contains a couple of points I think are plainly wrong. Eg. I think talking about their exercise regime is perfectly appropriate.
- More importantly, articles like this make it more difficult for non-depressed people to talk to depressed people. By saying ‘Don’t mention these x things, you might set them off’ it just it puts the person who is trying to help in a more difficult position, and might encourage them to retain the status quo position of saying nothing.
Depression and mental illness is something that should be talked about and so we should make both depressed and non-depressed people feel comfortable talking about.
So here are some techniques and discussion points to discuss:
- Their exercise regime. Reality is, exercise is very effective in combating depression[i]. When I’ve been very depressed though, I’ve found I’d do exercise, and it seemed not to help. I thinjk what I’ve found is that what’s important isn’t just a single workout, but a routine. For me changing from trying to run on the weekends or in the mornings, to simply doing the gym on three set days a week.
Discussing the depressed person’s exercise regime can help you establish:
a) whether they should be doing more exercise.
b) What difficulties they’re having sticking to their regime. Perhaps they’re not enjoying the workout and you could suggest an alternative exercise (rock climbing?).
Possibly the depressed person is going to feel embarrassed about exercise and isn’t going to want to talk to you about it. But by the same token, it might be something that they’re very frustrated about, and want some to talk to about. So that’s why it’s worth bringing up.
- Their diet. This subject is more or less a re-hash of the previous point. Diet is has a huge effect on mood[ii] If someone is eating a lot of junk food or sugar, then that is going to be holding them back on any progress, regardless of other self-improvement techniques like exercise or journaling they be utilising.
On this point though, personally I’ve found these things feed in to each other. For example there was a period where I was regularly eating ice creams when I came home from work, which probably wasn’t particularly good for overall mood. However, when other things starting making progress (like my exercise routine), then quitting sugar wasn’t quite easy, just requiring conscious resistance on a few nights.
- Their alcohol consumption. When I was visiting a psychiatrist she enquired about how much I drink, and when I revealed that I have one or two beers frequently throughout the week, she told me that she thinks that I might have an alcohol problem.
This was instrumental in me consciously making the effort to ‘quit’ drinking (reality is I just cut down a lot and restricted it to weekends socially, though the original intention was to completely sober for a few months).
Personally I think cutting out alcohol was hugely instrumental in getting out of a slump and the psychiatrist’s words were a good wake up call.
These first three points appear to be all questions examining ‘What the depressed is person doing wrong’. The intention for asking these questions shouldn’t be to be giving them a grilling and pointing out that it’s ‘all their fault’. Rather shining light on the reality of someone’s life is useful for both the depressed people and non-depressed people. Depressed people aren’t delusional (actually studies show that they might have a more accurate perception of reality than non-depressed people[iii]) and so don’t need people skirting around the issues .What they need is sensitivity and a sense of purpose and a light at the end of the tunnel.
- Ask them how they are feeling, invite them to come out with you.
If someone is deeply depressed, they might simply ignore your message. They feel embarrassed, and they don’t want to be a downer for you.
I know that this is what happens to me. When I’m manic, I’m socially insatiable to point of feeling lonely. When I get depressed that goes away, and I drop all social media and find it very difficult to respond to messages.
This can be frustrating the person asking, but don’t let it get you down.
While asking someone to come hang out, might not be effective immediately (if they simply ignore the invitation), in the long run it’s very useful. When the depressed person starts coming out of their funk, they remember that you invited them out, and that gives them reason to have something to live for and continue improving then.
- Let them know what you mean to them, and what they do to bring value to your life.
For example you could tell them how much you enjoy partying with them, or how you like their music, or how they’re good with your kids, or they’re fun to talk to.
By all means, don’t lie. As I said earlier, depressed people aren’t delusional. Find genuine compliments. I’m assuming if you reading this with serious intent, then there’s a good reason that you want to help the depressed person in your life.
- Ask them their plans.
Like everybody, it’s nice to have a roadmap and a plan for life. Depressed people often feel like their life is out of their control. Talking about what they want to do in the future, regarding their job, their exercise regime, their hobbies is a good way to put things in perspective, and it gives you an idea of how you spend some time with the depressed person, in a way that isn’t draining to you.
- Ask them about their medication. Ask them what medication they are on, do they know how it works, and how are they finding it?
My understanding of the current medical approach to medicating mental illness is that it’s a bit of a crap shoot. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, and it’s often a matter of just seeing what works.But what’s important is that medication can be very effective and helpful.
The depressed persons medication is possibly a central facet of their life, building a routine around taking it regularly etc.
And drugs are interesting! It’s possibly an interesting conversation to have.