What Not to Say to Depressed People

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Approximately 20 million American adults suffer from mood disorders each year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. This equates to roughly 9.5% of the adult population in any given year. Of that 9.5%, 45% of mood disorders might be classified as "severe." That means that roughly 4.3% of the adult population in this country is suffering from a severe mood disorder at any given time.

With a percentage as high as that, it might be assumed that the majority of Americans are familiar enough with mood disorders like depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder to understand that they are serious illnesses, not passing moods or weakness of character.

Unfortunately, while there have been increasing efforts to educate Americans about mood disorders, way too many people still believe that these "moods" are controllable.

Confusing Language

There is certainly a confusing overlap in the language. For instance, in common usage the word 'depressed' can just mean being sad about something. Clinical depression, however, goes much further than that. To be classified as clinically depressed, the patient must no longer be able to control the depth of their negative feelings, sinking into extreme sadness. They experience a loss of enjoyment, poor concentration, and feelings of guilt, helplessness and hopelessness. They are unable to sleep and lack an appetite. More importantly, they nearly always are unable to resolve these feelings without assistance.

Another example is the word 'anxiety', which can mean simple nervousness. On the other hand, clinically diagnosed anxiety sufferers are deeply apprehensive and frightened, paralyzed by impaired physical and psychological functioning.

What to Say, What Not to Say

Our character, as a society, has a kind of "keep your chin up", "don't quit", rah-rah take on what needs to be done. Platitudes abound that reflect that image: "Suck it up", "Cheer Up", "Don't Worry, Be Happy". Unfortunately, few platitudes have been written that address the pain and fear of a depressed friend or relative.

So, perhaps the best thing to do is to speak from the heart. Don't try to minimize what the other person is feeling. Don’t tell them it will go away soon, or that they just need to ride it out. Don't pretend you know what they are feeling. Tell them you care about them, tell them you will be right there with them every step of the way. Tell them you love them (if you do), and that you want the best for them. Offer them a hug or a hand. Acknowledge their pain, but don’t minimize it.

Most of all, listen to them. The depressed or anxious patient might not fully understand or recognize what is happening to them. For someone who has never experienced it, depression and anxiety can feel like you’re losing your mind. Don’t discount how frightened they might feel. Validate what they say, and don’t try to have all the answers.

If a friend who is suffering from depression speaks of suicide, don’t hesitate to get professional help immediately. It is far better to intervene in this instance than to wait to see what happens or simply hope for the best.

Sources: National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and Health Magazine
Image: Courtesy Andrew Mason


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