by Wanda Sanchez, award-winning author of Love Letters from the Edge
Words mean something, people. We all know this. It’s hard to describe the measure of pain that words can inflict in the deepest part of our souls. As dramatic as that sentence sounds, I wish it weren’t true.
Dr. Philip R. Muskin, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center and secretary of the American Psychiatric Association states, “By avoiding stigmatizing statements, you can help stop the shame and fear that is often associated with mental illness. People living with depression fear being judged, and that’s one of the biggest reasons people avoid getting treatment.”
As a co-founder of PTSDPerspectives.org, I’ve shared some of my story. At 6 years of age, I was described by social workers and teachers as “smart, sad, discouraged, and depressed.” My doctors wrote detailed reports about the dark-eyed little girl and the extent of the neglect and severity of the abuse she had endured at the hands of myriad people.
Oh yes…l knew the darkness, but unlike most children, I did not fear it. In fact, I welcomed the darkness. It offered me a degree of safety and helped me “prepare” for who or what was coming next to take what they wanted from me. The darkness offered me the best gift of all: a hiding place. I felt safer in the dark. It was easy to hide in the dark. For as long as I can remember, I have peered out from my dark hiding place and felt the hopelessness of an even bigger darkness enveloping me as it bids me to “come out, come out, wherever you are!”
I have listened to doctors, therapists, pastors, and friends talk about depression, but rarely do their words offer therapeutic value. The truth is, if you think someone is suicidal, they are already running out of time.
What we say is important. Below are things you should NEVER say to a depressed person:
Instead of using the above or similar statements, try affirming statements instead: ‘If you feel something is overwhelming for you, please tell me. I care about you,’” Affirmation and empathy are especially important if the person might feel like life is not worth living. Say something like, “I want to get you the care you deserve,” Muskin suggests. “There is nothing shameful about feeling that way, and no one has ever become suicidal from a friend asking about those thoughts and feelings. The reverse is true. It is a relief to be able to tell someone about such scary thoughts.”
5. “Stop it.” A person who fights depression knows the right thing to do but often can’t find a way to bring themselves to do it,” says Michael D. Yapko, a clinical psychologist, author ,and lecturer on depression. “Telling someone how they should feel or act doesn’t tell them how to do it.”
Instead, try to help the person “develop a realistic pathway to get there.” Suggest, “Let’s exercise together,” or “Let me help you find someone to talk to about this.”
Yapko offers additional wisdom. “The reason to go to therapy is the hope that the therapist will provide a pathway to make it possible. Don’t encourage results without suggesting a means for producing it.”
6. “Just do something about it. “Depression is insidious because it makes it very hard for a person to do anything about it. “Depressed people make depressed decisions,” Yapko says. “When you use your feelings as an indicator of what to do, you make bad decisions.” People who battle with depression often battle with others because they make decisions based on their feelings. “They are responding to feelings instead of the larger goal,” Yapko says.
“If you don’t know what to do, talk to somebody who does. Go after the goal, not the feelings,” Yapko says. “Offer to help them through it. Don’t get mad at them. Understand that helplessness is part of depression.”
Even therapists get frustrated when patients don’t do what has been asked of them, he says. The point is to understand why people act the way they act. “Tell the person that trying something new may not feel good or attractive right now, but doing what they’ve been doing isn’t the solution,” he says.
7. “You don’t need medication. You can pull through this.” The need for medication is a matter for a mental health professional to decide. While it is true that in some instances, people with depression may respond to treatments like psychotherapy and exercise, some people do need medications. And those who are already on antidepressants should not stop taking their medication without speaking to their doctor first, Yapko says.
8.“Everything will be OK.” Someone with depression can’t see beyond the moment. It’s important to stay positive and encouraging, but it takes action to feel better. Offer suggestions, such as, “Let’s do something together,” Muskin says. “Depression can keep a person from participating in everyday activities. You can show your support by offering to go to a movie, or even a quick walk.”
Sometimes the best thing to say is nothing. “Just listen,” Muskin says. “But make it clear you are listening.” When you do respond, stay calm and empathetic. “Getting angry and yelling are the worst things you can do,” Yapko says. “It is not helpful. They need support, and you may have to go out of your way to do things you would rather they do on own, like find a therapist, or take them to appointments, at least initially.”
Ask, “What can I do for you?”
“This is important, but it comes with a caveat,” Muskin says.
“If you really want to be there and help someone, then you need to do what you say you’re going to do WHEN you say you’re going to do it.”
If a person you know appears to be struggling with depression or anxiety, “don’t assume someone else will reach out,” the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP) advises. Its Talk Saves Lives web page offers five steps for this crucial conversation:
~ Depression is NOT a moral failing, a weakness, or a product of someone’s imagination.
~ Depression is a medical condition rooted in biology.
~ Depression is an upheaval of brain chemistry linked to and triggered by a combination of genetics, family history, past trauma, stress, and other factors.