I’ll admit it, I’ve had to learn some hard lessons with my depression, and one was how not to be an energy vampire who depression-bombed people with my problems. That can be exhausting for the listener, and repeating those sad, self-defeating thoughts over and over can sometimes lead to wallowing in them.
That being said…you really need to reach out to a loved one during serious depressive episodes sometimes. One example of such a time is if you’re feeling so depressed you have self-harming thoughts. Ultimately, if you have serious persistent depression you should really be connected to a professional. However, it’s sometimes so comforting to talk to a loved one who can build you up when you’re feeling down, so it may be helpful to identify a couple of people in your life who can serve as a “lifeline”–preferably someone who understands both depression and you.
You’ve probably heard that there are some things you shouldn’t say to people who are depressed—like “cheer up” or “snap out of it.” While these statements are well-intentioned, they reinforce the harmful stereotype that mental illness is a moral failing or a character flaw that you can simply will your way out of. It’s similarly unhelpful to suggest that the person grappling with depression doesn’t appreciate the good things in their life or that others have things much worse. The very nature of chemical depression is that it doesn’t discriminate–as we’ve seen in the news it afflicts the rich and famous, the creative and talented, public figures adored by thousands, as well as the working class or people experiencing homelessness. It exists despite our life circumstances or our belief in it.
So what *is* appropriate to say to someone who is depressed? A lot of people simply want to be listened to or heard, and to know there’s someone who cares about them. They generally would like their feelings validated–for instance, by hearing something like “you’re going through a lot right now” or “that must feel really painful” instead of hearing that they’re overblowing things or thinking too negatively. Empathy usually helps, like saying “I’m sorry you’re having such a hard time,” or “I’ve been thinking about you.” A gently worded suggestion asking if they’ve thought about seeing a therapist or doctor might help, too.
Based on my own experience over-taxing people I think it’s a good idea to refer someone to a professional or say something like “I feel really bad for you and I’m sorry you’re going through this, but I’m not feeling well myself and need to take a break” or “I think I need to recharge my emotional batteries to talk about this,” if it becomes too overwhelming—in fact, I’ve had people say those things to me, and though I felt a little bad I was never offended, I mostly just hoped I hadn’t drained them too much.
Talking about depression is necessary sometimes because even if you talk to a doctor, someone close to you may understand you and your specific problems more intimately. It’s also necessary because if we only ever talk to doctors in confidence about depression, we’ll never break the stigma, help people realize depression affects those from all walks of life, and help people realize there is no shame in talking about it and seeking help.
I’ve seen a lot of charts like this online, and again there’s no “one size fits all” approach. However, you can see at a glance the difference between the columns: statements to say emphasize concern, empathy, and suggestions for professional help, while statements on the right are indicative of judgment, minimizing problems, and a lack of attempt to practice understanding and awareness. As an “invisible” illness, it can be difficult for our society to really see and understand depression. And they never will if they cannot listen to someone else’s experience and imagine what it’s like.