Beyond Blue

Beyond Blue

10 Things You SHOULD Say to a Depressed Loved One

making peace loved ones.jpgThe other day I covered 10 things you should not say to a loved one if you don’t want your name to come up in her therapy sessions. It covered a lot of ground, so I get why some folks would say, “Then what the hell CAN I say?” I’ve been thinking about that, and here’s my list. Some of them may require a personality adjustment, so just skip those.



1. Can I relieve your stress in any way?

One thing all writing manuals say is SHOW don’t TELL. Words aren’t all that helpful to a person struggling with depression. Because let me speak from experience … almost everything she hears will somehow be twisted to sound like an insult. Every suggestion–St. John’s Wort? Organic apples? Yoga?–are going to come off as: You are doing something terribly wrong and this is all your fault.

SO what I found most comforting when I couldn’t pull myself up by my bootstraps is when a friend came over and fixed me lunch, or when someone offered to tidy up my place. I realize that sounds a tad pampered and self-indulgent, but we wouldn’t think twice about doing it for someone who is going through chemo. Why not go there for a person battling a serious mood disorder?


2. What do you think might help you to feel better?

This one I picked up from parenting manuals. If you tell a little girl to stay away from the Skittles because she becomes demonic after indulging in those tasty sweets, that’s not really going to do much more than shove five in her mouth. However, if you say … “Do you remember when you slapped Cousin Fred in the face at the picnic last week because you got excited after eating a bag of Skittles? Do you think there’s a chance of that happening again?” she MAY very well still desire the Skittles, and hell, she might even shove another five in her mouth; however, there is also a chance she will arrive at her own solutions and, say, … go for the doughnut instead!


3. Is there something I can do for you?

Again, like number one, this is a SHOW not TELL moment, and those are very effective at communicating compassion. Chances are that the depressed person will just shake her head as she cries, but I can assure you that she will register your offer in that place instead her heart that says, “This person cares about me.” Now if she asks you to file her tax return, I apologize sincerely.

4. Can I drive you somewhere?

Here’s something that most people don’t know about folks battling depression: they are really bad drivers. REALLY bad. In fact, when I was admitted into the inpatient psych unit at Johns Hopkins, I was shocked that one of the questions was, “Have you received any speeding tickets, or ran into other cars, or big orange columns in parking garages that got paint all over your Honda and pissed off your husband?” When I inquired with the nurse why that question was on there, she said “bad driving is an easy way to diagnose a mood disorder.”


All I can say there is: True. True. True. So, this suggestion is not only to help out your depressed friends who maybe do need some fish oil or tissue paper from the drug store, but also all the other people on the road.

5. Where are you getting your support?

Notice the difference between saying, “Are you going to any support group meetings?” which implies, “If you aren’t, you are one lazy son of a bitch who deserves to be depressed.” And “Where are you getting your support?” which says, “You need some support. Let’s figure out a way to get it.”

6. You won’t always feel this way.

That was the perfect sentence that I could hear 50 times a day when I wanted out, out, out, of this world. Those words don’t judge, impose, or manipulate. What they do is convey hope, and HOPE is what keeps a person alive, or at least motivated to get to the next day to see if the light at the end of the tunnel is really a place of rebirth or a friggin’ freight train.


7. Can you think of anything contributing to your depression?

This is a very gentle way of saying, “It’s your abusive marriage that’s bringing you down, fool!” or “You think maybe the witch you work with might have a little something to do with the mood dips?” You’re poking around, but not stopping the stick on any one thing. Again, like the preschooler, she has to arrive at her own conclusions, and when she does, she will take accountability for what she can change and not blame you for any negative results.

8. What time of day is hardest for you?

This one was brilliant. It was my mom’s. So she called twice a day, once in the morning–because depression is usually most acute upon waking (“Crap, I’m still alive.”)–and at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon, when blood sugar dips and anxiety can take over. Mind you, she didn’t have to say a whole lot, but knowing that I could count on her during those two times was a little bit like holding someone’s hand through a dangerous intersection.


9. I’m here for you.

It’s simple. It’s sweet. And it communicates everything you need to say: I care, I get it, I don’t really understand it, but I love you, and I support you.

10. Nothing.

That’s the most uncomfortable one, because we always want to fill in the silence with something, even if it’s weather talk. But saying nothing … and merely listening … is sometimes the very best response, and the most appropriate. I love this passage from Rachel Naomi Remen’s bestselling book “Kitchen Table Wisdom”:

I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.


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  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment kate

    Great post Therese! Especially the “you won’t always feel this way.” I once had a teacher (re; the feeling of being overwhelmed by school work) go even further and describe what it would be like in a few years to look back over my shoulder and say: “phew – I did that!” I look back on my worst depression and say to myself, phew…I survived that…alrighty then. Thanks for the reminder!

  • http://WhatIneedtohear?(repeatcommentforthoseitmighthelp...) Your Name

    The one thing I NEED to hear when I am at my lowest is “This is NOT you; This is NOT about YOU; You are so much more than this…maybe it is time for help!”

    I have learned that I do not need to disclose my depression to everyone. I have a very ‘few’ select group of people in my life that truly understand ME and the way depression affects me. I trust that when one of them looks at me and says the above…it is time to get help!

    For those who do not understand I have written this prayer; place where I am able to see it; read it when necessary “I forgive them their lack of understanding for they do not know; Thank You God that they don’t…for then they do not suffer-they are fortunate in their ignorance.”
    It is very difficult to say and mean; yet when I do remember to say it I find healing in it, not hurt and anger, which when depressed I can not afford. LENA

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Allison Gamble

    Hello, sorry to leave an unrelated comment, but I couldn’t find any contact information for you on the site! I’m wondering if you might be interested in a guest post. Please drop me an e-mail.



  • Jshafer

    Great post, good points and well done. You went from the ‘practical’ suggestions of ‘doing,’ to more ethereal ways of ‘being’ with the person, which I think is good.

    I just found out this morning that ‘silent’ and ‘listen’ are made up of the same letters, which fits with option 10. This could include ‘surrendering’ to the difficulty and pain the other person may be feeling while in their presence, is always helpful and takes no words.

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Lidia

    When somebody is in a deep depression there are not too many things and words that really can be helpful. The 1st one is to realise that this is really a temporary condition, yes “You won’t always feel this way”, as everything passes and this will pass too. “I am here for you” – it is always good to know that somebody cares, if they do it sincere and willingly. And just “Nothing but listen”, no advising, no cheering up but a simple listening matters the most… All other words of support may be only annoying, but again, we all are very different, what is helpful for one person may be harmful for other. Words heal, words hurt…

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment JenB

    Thanks for this! I offered your other list to a group of friends and you can bet this list will go to the same people! It’s a great list for so many people struggling with depression or other mental (and physical) illnesses. I seem to have a sinful and proud or frustrated (and sometimes angry) response when anyone asks me these questions or offers help.

    1. “Can I relieve your stress in any way?” 2. “What do you think might help you to feel better?” 3. “Is there something I can do for you?” Personally, open-ended questions don’t help me. I don’t know how to asnwer them – either because I can’t think clearly, or because I’m embarassed to ask for someone to clean or cook. If someone asks me a specific question like #4 “Can I drive you somewhere?” or “I want to cook for you; which day works best?” (and they drop it off so I don’t feel the need to entertain or clean up my house) I am more likely to accept that help. I’ve asked for a couple of rides, but many of my doctors are an hour away and guilt overcomes me to take so much time from them… that, or they don’t have the time (anyone who is home during the day has children). Once when it was dangerous for me to be alone, my husband asked a friend to come and sit with me. She didn’t understand and asks “what am I supposed to do?” She couldn’t do that — wanted to talk or play a boardgame. Just sitting and being with me was beyond what she could handle. I don’t blame her for this, but it was a hard concept.

    5. Where are you getting your support? I have a therapist and a psychiatrist. I am currently friend-less and have been judged severely so *if* someone asks me this, I don’t trust them to even entertain this questions.

    6. You won’t always feel this way or #7. Can you think of anything contributing to your depression? I admit, this one makes me angry, even when my psychologist asks me. Ok, no I may not always feel this way, but every time I’ve felt better, I’ve always crash again. Who among us is positive enough to agree with that comment – that we won’t always feel this way.

    8. “What time of day is hardest for you?” When I’m so, so deep in the pit, “I don’t know” is my most common phrase. That’s probably the why I can’t answer “What can I do for you?” or other open-ended questions. I simply can’t think.

    9. “I’m here for you.” Yes, I’m a cynical person… I know it. So when I hear it from most people, I’m pretty sure that they are *just* saying it. They don’t know what else to say/do and I do appreciate that. My sinful nature takes over and I don’t reach out. I also don’t want to hear “I understand” because they don’t. Unless they’ve been in my shoes, they simply don’t.

    10. Nothing. Personally, this is my very most favorite option of all. If someone would call and just say “I have some time available and would like to come sit with you; we don’t have to talk (I can bring a book), but I want to spend some time being with you.” It’s still hard, and I may feel the need to entertain, especially since I’m a pro at pretending I’m fine, but if someone would just say that they’re here (and physically here) and if I want to talk, let me know.” I can’t argue with someone doing nothing!

    Don’t misunderstand… please (!)… I think this list is awesome and it gives “outsiders” ideas of how to approach someone who is suffering. If I might add, I’ve seen a book entitled ” Beyond Casseroles 505 Ways Encourage a Chronically Ill Friend” through Rest Ministries, specifically the Comfort Zone. I’ve often wanted to offer this book to my church, but it can’t come from me – how awful would that look? But after your books, Terese, this is perfect! Let me say, I have read your books, but have not read this… just so you know my priorities :-)

    I’m just a difficult one…

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Meg

    THANK YOU!!! You said what I’ve been feeling for years and have found frustration with…in #1! Everyone eagerly rallies behind any friend or barely known neighbor if they have some surgery, get in an accident, or as you mentioned, go through chemo. Meals are delivered, children are cared for, and houses are cleaned, automatically it seems to me. Not that I have a problem with this; it is a tangible way to help someone who needs help and I gladly help when I can. But I struggle with this because those of us who are challenged on a daily basis for years on end in a “sinking ship” are rarely offered any real help. As part of the illness, we feel powerless to ask for help, because, like you said, it feels like asking to be pampered and self-indulgent. I’ve tried to wrap my head around this one for so long and how to “be brave” and ask for the help I need, but friends have busy lives and my church doesn’t offer a system in place for such people. I always say, when I am better/have time/feel up to it, I will approach our pastor and brainstorm on this. But when you have a toddler and are so tired all you can do is the basics (eat, dishes, laundry, sleep) to survive, that is not going to happen. If anyone has any suggestions, please share!!

  • http://AddaURLtothiscomment Scott

    Hi I was wondering if helping a person to much could be worse?? as like if they are able to cut there own grass should I offer to help or should I just jump on my mower and go do it? I am talking about my son and he is very depressed and thinks he went wrong in life and called him self a looser. I have been trying to help but I am not sure what to say or do. I lost a son years ago (his brother) and I think the both of us have never gotten over that. There are times it feels like yesterday. My big concern is that I may say or do some thing wrong. He has 2 young kids of his own one will be 4 and one will be 2 in March. He is working long hours and is on call after he comes home. Also his spouse does not seem to be very helpful to him, seems like he is always cleaning the house or cooking after he gets home. I have observed this if by chance he is home when I swing by on occasion after work. We live in the same neighborhood so he is a walk down the street from me, but I do not impose on him on a regular basis. I love him and my grand kids very much and want to help in anyway I can. If you need more info please Email me. Thanks for your help.

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