It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is experiencing depression. However, active listening and words of comfort and support can help.
Statistics show that about 17.3 million adults, which represents 7.1% of the population, and 1.9 million children aged 3–17 years experience depression each year in the United States.
For some people, the condition’s symptoms are mild. For others, they are so debilitating that they can make it difficult to get out of bed.
Although there are no words that will heal depression, being comforting and supportive may help someone manage their symptoms.
Among the most important things that an individual can offer are loving support and encouragement. Without forcing or pressuring them, asking a person questions about how they are feeling can give them vital space to talk.
The symptoms of depression can be scary or overwhelming, but vocalizing some of those difficult thoughts can make them less powerful.
For example, research from 2016 found that people who shared thoughts of suicide with loved ones experienced a greater sense of belonging and felt less like a burden.
Some things to say that may help include:
- “Would you like space?” Not everyone will feel like talking all the time, and it is vital to respect that.
- “You matter to me.” Depression causes feelings of shame and hopelessness. Remind the individual that they are important to you and that they are not a burden.
- “Your feelings are valid.” Encourage the person to vocalize their emotions. Do not belittle or mock these feelings.
- “Do you want company?” Reassure the person that they do not have to be alone when they are feeling low.
- “I care, even if I don’t understand.” Some people with depression may feel as though others do not understand their experiences. Rather than pretending to understand, offer compassion and loving reassurance.
- “How can I best support you?” Everyone is different. Although some people may not know what they need, others will have clear ideas about what might help or what makes things worse.
- “I will help you.” If you are able to help, let the person know what you are willing to do so. Can you research therapists, be with them for the first phone call, or walk them to the first session? Or can you help them talk with their spouse or parents about their feelings?
- “Can I do something to distract you?” Sometimes, an individual may not wish to engage in a difficult conversation about their feelings. Instead, offer to do something fun with them, such as watching a movie, sharing a special meal, or taking a trip to a local garden.
- “I love you.” Sometimes, the simplest statement is the best. Just expressing your love can be a supportive gesture.
If you think that a loved one might have depression, do not shy away from the topic.
You can tell them that you have noticed changes in their emotions or behavior and that you want to help.
This conversation should be collaborative between adults and not confrontational. When speaking with children, adults should be careful to avoid making them feel as though they are in trouble or being judged.
If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:
- Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
- Listen to the person without judgment.
- Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
- Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
- Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 800-273-8255.
When talking with an individual with depression about suicide, people can also try these strategies:
- Encourage the person to continue talking: It is a myth that talking about suicide causes suicide. In fact, having an outlet for painful emotions may make them less powerful.
- Ask the person if they have a plan: In some cases, having a more detailed and specific plan may indicate that the person is more at risk of suicide, in which case, you should seek additional help.
- Ask them to agree not to commit suicide for a set period: Often, thoughts of suicide come to a peak and then subside or become less urgent after the peak passes.
- Ask them if they will agree to call you before a suicide attempt: This affords you the chance to help them.
- Offer to go with them to therapy or treatment: This support may encourage people who are unsure about seeking professional help.
People often worry that reaching out to someone will be unhelpful or intrusive.
Some ways of finding out if someone wishes to talk include:
- Asking them how they feel.
- Asking them about a recent situation that you know they were concerned about, for example, “How did the interview go?”
- Asking if there is anything they are worried about or would like to share.
If you feel the person wishes to talk, let them speak. Here are some tips for being an active listener:
- Focus fully on the person — put away your phone give them your full attention.
- Avoid talking about yourself at all.
- Allow for silences — avoid feeling the need to fill them up.
- Avoid judging the person, however you feel about their story.
- Ask open-ended questions rather than questions that need a yes or no answer. For example, “So what happened next?”
- At appropriate moments, briefly repeat back to the person what you have understood, so they know you have listened and have not misinterpreted.
If you think the person may be considering suicide, it is acceptable to ask them directly. According to the Samaritans, asking about suicide can be helpful as it gives the person space to talk about it.
No single method of communication works for everyone. A person can consider how they usually speak with the individual with depression — which method offers the most intimacy and fosters the deepest dialogue?
In a 2017 poll, 86% of respondents said that face-to-face discussions of depression are the best option. However, some people may feel more comfortable texting.
There are some instances where it is not helpful or advisable to talk about mental health issues. Some tips include:
- Do not bring up depression during a fight or a time of high stress.
- Do not use depression as a shaming tactic.
- Wait for a time when the person is reasonably calm.
- Do not talk with someone when they are distracted or tired.
- Avoid blindsiding the individual, such as by bringing depression up for the first time in a fight.
Loved ones can support people with depression in many ways, but it is not possible to cure the condition.
While it may help to encourage individuals to seek treatment, it is not possible to force someone to speak with a doctor or therapist.
With this in mind, instead of trying to force a specific outcome, focus on cultivating a loving environment.
Some strategies that can help include:
- inviting the other person to do things that they once enjoyed
- using humor if it usually helps that person
- avoiding spending all of the time together talking about depression
- taking care of your own needs and setting boundaries if you feel uncomfortable
Avoid saying anything that dismisses the person’s symptoms, judges them for their emotions, stigmatizes depression, or makes them feel hopeless.
Some examples of what not to say include:
- “Have you tried eating better, exercising more, or getting outside?” While lifestyle changes can sometimes improve the effectiveness of depression treatment or reduce symptoms, they will not cure depression. It is also likely that a person has tried or considered these approaches, so telling them to try specific remedies can be disrespectful.
- “But you always look like you have it together!” It takes a lot of courage for a person to talk about depression. If they then face disbelief or doubt, they may not talk about it again or might feel doubt about their own feelings.
- “It’s not that bad.” Minimizing another person’s feelings can cause them to feel ashamed and alone. It also makes it less likely that they will reach out again.
- “I know how you feel.” While it might seem that way, no one can know what another person is going through exactly. This statement may make them feel misunderstood or shift the focus to you.
- “You’re making me feel bad.” If another person shares their thoughts about what they are going through, you may feel overwhelmed. Do not blame them for these emotions or make them feel guilty. However, it is important to set boundaries if you feel uncomfortable.
- “I’m going to punish you.” Never punish a child for experiencing symptoms of depression. Be mindful that children and teens with depression may act out and that punishing them for their behavior without getting them appropriate treatment can worsen symptoms.
People who love a person with depression may also need external support from friends, family members, or a therapist.
If a person feels that an individual with depression may benefit from professional help, encourage them to speak with a licensed therapist or psychologist. Their family doctor may be able to recommend a suitable practitioner.
There are also online apps that a person can access at any time. They usually have a licensed professional available for chatting.
Depression is a common mental health issue, so many people will need to find constructive, positive ways to talk about it with their loved ones.
There is nothing that individuals can say to cure depression in someone else, but being supportive and a good listener can help.