It can be difficult to know what to say to someone who is experiencing depression.
Statistics show that about 17.3 million adults (7.1% of the population) and 1.9 million children aged 3–17 experience depression each year in the United States.
For some people, the symptoms are mild. For others, they are so debilitating that they make it difficult to get out of bed.
Although there are no magic words that will heal depression, being comforting and supportive may help someone manage their symptoms.
Among the most important things that a person 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 person 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. 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 to their spouse or their parents about their feelings?
- “Can I do something to distract you?” Sometimes, a person may not wish to engage in a difficult conversation about their feelings. Instead, offer to do something fun with the person, 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 talking to 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 call 800-799-4889.
When talking to a person 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.
No single method of communication works for everyone. Consider how you usually talk to the person. Which method offers the most intimacy and fosters the deepest dialogue?
In a 2017 Kaiser Permanente 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 in which 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 to someone when they are distracted or tired.
- Avoid blindsiding the other person, 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 another person’s depression.
While it may help to encourage a person to seek treatment, it is not possible to force someone to see a doctor or therapist.
Instead of trying to force a specific outcome, therefore, 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/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 exactly what another person is going through. 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 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 make symptoms worse.
People who love a person with depression may also need external support from friends, family members, or a therapist.
Depression is a common mental health issue, meaning that many people will need to find constructive, positive ways to talk about it with their loved ones.
There is nothing that a person can say to cure depression in someone else, but being supportive and a good listener can help.