In 2016, I was diagnosed with atypical depression. Though I had experienced depression symptoms for years prior to my diagnosis, hearing a professional tell me that I was depressed and should consider taking an antidepressant was, no pun intended, a hard pill to swallow. Weeks leading up to the diagnosis, I had experienced crying spells, I was sleeping excessively, and I struggled to find pleasure in anything. It was difficult for me to complete everyday tasks. I was working as a substance abuse counselor at the time and had spent years working in the mental health field. My days were consumed with applying coping skills and techniques to help people manage their mental health. Despite all the practice I had with my clients, coming to terms with my own mental illness was both humbling and scary.
Breaking the news to my loved ones was also a challenge. Though I was hesitant to share that I was diagnosed with depression, I knew I would need a good support system to help me through the process. I received mixed reactions as I broke the news to my family and friends. Some friends were happy that I sought help and were incredibly supportive of my decision to begin taking an antidepressant. Others were confused that I, someone who was always smiling and caring for others, could be suffering from depression. The months following my diagnosis would be full of mishaps and uncomfortable moments with people in my life who meant well, but often made hurtful statements regarding my mental health. I didn’t blame them for these missteps. They did not have a cheat sheet on how to support a friend with depression and didn’t know how to respond. They wanted me to be happy and often said what they thought would make me feel better in the moment. I’ve thought a lot over the years about hurtful phrases that were said to me during my darkest moments of depression. Here are a few statements that, though the individuals meant well, were not helpful:
“Look on the bright side…”
Individuals struggling with depression are not oblivious to the positives in their life. It is possible to be grateful for all the good things while still experiencing feelings of sadness and despair. Your friend with depression is not choosing to ignore the silver lining in the cloud. They often see the silver lining and are feeling the weight of the cloud at the same time.
Instead of asking your friend who is struggling with depression to think of or look at the positives, ask them to explain what they are experiencing in their present moment and affirm their present feelings. Saying something like, “I know this must be rough for you. Can you tell me how you’re feeling?” is more helpful than ignoring their current pain. Empathy is key. Instead of shying away from unpleasant emotions of your friend, be understanding of their emotions, even if you can’t fully understand what they are feeling.
“You control your own happiness!”
This statement is one I see often. During some of my lowest moments of depression, I remember being so frustrated when I would see or hear this phrase. Though it is often said as a motivation for change, the shame attached to this statement can be harmful. I didn’t want to be depressed. I didn’t purposely remove happiness from my life. I wanted to be happy. If I could have magically made my depression disappear and be full of joy, I would’ve done it in a heartbeat. Biologically, I could not control my own happiness. My brain was not producing enough serotonin (a hormone that helps regulate a person’s mood) which affected my ability to experience happiness on a regular basis. Though I was able to experience moments of happiness, the moments were often fleeting.
Yes, an individual can make decisions and practice coping skills to help promote happiness in their lives, however, individuals suffering from depression do not always have the luxury to “turn on” happiness when they want to. Try to support the coping skills your friend has put into place to help manage their depression and understand that there are days that they will not feel happy, and that is OK.
“You don’t look depressed.”
Though there are warning signs you can look for to determine if someone is depressed, depression does not have a “look.” Contrary to the images we see on television and movies of individuals with depression sulking and wearing all black, people who suffer from the illness come from all walks of life and their depression presents (or doesn’t openly present at all) in various ways. Just because a friend is not presenting the common symptoms of depression does not mean they are not depressed or are “faking it.”
When a friend is brave enough to share that they are struggling with depression, believe them. Even if they are still holding a job, going to school, getting dressed every day and hanging out with friends, they can still experience depression symptoms. You never know the strength it takes for them to continue to complete tasks while depressed. Acknowledge their illness, even if it doesn’t look the way you think it should.
“We all get sad sometimes.”
This statement is true. We do all get sad sometimes. However, depression is so much more than sadness. Depression is a serious mental illness that can be caused by a range of circumstances such as trauma, chemical imbalances in the brain or genetic disposition. As I stated earlier, depression shows up in various ways. The symptoms of depression can include sadness as well as anger, irritability and hopelessness. Depression can even create physical pain in individuals who suffer from the illness. If you have a friend suffering from depression, take time to educate yourself on the illness to better understand what they are experiencing. Be willing to listen to their experience with depression.
“Get over it!”
For some of us, depression is an illness we will never “get over.” It is a life-long journey full of bumpy roads, hills and valleys. What your friend needs most is your support. They don’t need you to try to fix them. They need you to stand with them through the highs and lows of their depression. Simply being a listening ear, offering to help with household chores, taking your friend out for a meal, etc., can do a world of help for a friend battling depression.
Be There for Your Friend & Yourself
Helping a friend with their mental illness can sometimes take a toll on your own mental health. Seeking help from a mental health professional can help keep your mental health intact while helping to better understand the mental health needs of your friend. Please contact Discovery Mood & Anxiety Programs if you or a loved one is in need of mental health treatment.
April Cox is a permanency specialist II at Professional Family Care Services in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. She is passionate about the mental health of individuals and families and prides her work on providing practical ways to promote mental health wellness. April has a BA in sociology and has worked as a therapeutic staff support, family-based counselor, and drug and alcohol counselor before transitioning to child welfare, where she helps foster children and foster families process past traumas. April is passionate about the arts and spends her evenings teaching dance classes to all ages.