Things not to say to someone with depression or anxiety

It’s a well-documented fact that I suffer from anxiety and occasional episodes of depression. I used to find that hard to say, but thanks to the bravery of so many bloggers, celebrities, writers, all-round amazing human beings, their inspirational work has reduced (but unfortunately not entirely eliminated) the stigma around mental health issues.

While I live very well with my anxiety, it is still very much a part of my character. Years of talking therapy, CBT and a lot of hard work have made it more like an irritating itch that I live with. I’ve learned that an episode will pass, and that the stories my panicked brain can conjure up are mostly fiction. But most importantly, through the well-meaning attempts of others, I’ve learned quite a few things not to say to someone suffering from a mental illness. Here are some of them:

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Being depressed or anxious can prevent you from being able to enjoy the beauty in life

Cheer up / chin up / snap out of it / don’t be so negative

Oh OK then, thanks. It’s that easy. People who don’t suffer from a mental illness don’t necessarily understand that it’s not a matter of just thinking positively. If it was as easy as flicking a light switch in your brain, there would be no problem in the first place. With depression, half the battle is that you just can’t enjoy things, no matter how badly you want to. Being told to cheer up is as helpful as being ordered to stop bleeding, or stop being diabetic, or stop having a heart condition. With anxiety, half the battle is that you ruminate, going round and round in your head and inventing or exacerbating calamities. Once you’ve started, stopping is a major uphill struggle.

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Don’t ignore the elephant in the room.

You just need to go for a walk / change your diet / hang out with friends

Most people who live with a mental health problem of any kind know their patterns well. It’s not that these things wouldn’t cheer up an ordinary person who was just feeling a bit blue, but as I said before it just doesn’t work that way. A depressive episode leaves you devoid of the ability to enjoy anything. An episode of anxiety simply makes you too anxious. For me, hanging out with friends in the midst of an anxiety episode is the worst thing I could possibly do, as my anxiety is mainly social. There are some things that legitimately help, but your depressed or anxious loved one probably already knows about it and either found it doesn’t work for them or just can’t.

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Treat mental illness with love, not judgement

Talk to me when you’ve calmed down / you’re being hysterical / you’re being dramatic / you’re attention seeking / it’s all in your head / you’re being ridiculous

How to make someone feel like there’s nobody on the planet that cares about them in one thoughtless sentence. How to make someone feel so hopelessly alone that any attempt to convey the depths of their despair will only be met with accusations of drama and hysteria. How can anyone be expected to seek help when the reaction from their loved ones is discomfort and disbelief? Reaching out and showing just how bad it is for you isn’t an easy thing to do – feeling rejected after doing so can be simply devastating.

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Sometimes, just knowing you’re not alone can help

So how do you talk to someone who’s depressed or anxious?

Our natural human response is to want to make things better. If we can’t, we feel just as hopeless as the person going through the episode of mental illness. If you’re stuck for something helpful to say, here are a few things that might help your loved one to feel less alone.

♥ I don’t know how to make it better, but I love you and I’m listening to you.
♥ I hear that you’re feeling despair and I’m here for you.
♥ Would you like a hug? (And don’t be offended if the answer is no).
♥ I know that this will eventually pass, but I can hear that it feels really hopeless right now.
♥ You are not alone and I will support you in any way I can.

The simple message needs to be of love and acceptance, not of judgement or panic. Don’t reject someone you love who’s suffering from a mental health problem because you don’t know what to say to them, don’t tell them to call back when they feel better if they’ve had the courage amongst the hopelessness / despair / terror / panic to reach out to you. Just listen, be there, listen and give love. You can’t fix them, but you can help them to feel less alone, ostracised and abnormal, all things society tends to make sufferers feel.

I’ll share a recent very personal story. At Christmas, in front of about twenty family members, I had an anxiety attack and fled the family table. What set it off wasn’t important, but as I came back into the room, my eyes red and swollen and absolutely terrified of people’s reactions, my aunt and uncle just sat down and included me in the conversation. And just like that I felt more OK. Not fixed, but less like I wanted to run home and never show my face again. It felt so utterly normal, like I’d just had a sneezing fit instead of running from the room sobbing. It was the perfect way to treat me in that situation.

Being there for someone with a mental health issue isn’t easy, but with some compassion, care and kindness, you can help them to feel as loved as they deserve. Good luck.

11 Comments on Things not to say to someone with depression or anxiety

  1. Harpreet
    January 7, 2014 at 9:16 pm (3 years ago)

    Well written, Sara. I have been in your shoes, and have also dealt with it from the other side as my dad suffered from a severe depression recently. There is no textbook answer on how to deal with a loved one’s depression, but the key thing is to show them you are there to help them figure it out together! It is always an ongoing struggle for anyone who has been depressed, but knowing that support is near makes it so much less scary xxxxx

    Reply
  2. Leah
    January 7, 2014 at 10:25 pm (3 years ago)

    So agree with all of this. Really struggling at the moment and really thought that I would magically feel better in the New Year! Sadly not, but luckily I have lovely supportive people to talk it through with when I’m feeling bad and I just don’t bother with those that make me feel worse! xx

    Reply
    • Sara - Darling Lovely Life editor
      January 7, 2014 at 10:30 pm (3 years ago)

      So sorry to hear you’re struggling lovely – happy to hear you have such wonderful supports around you. A great point about learning who to confide in to help rather than hinder. Love xxx

      Reply
  3. Ed Marks
    January 7, 2014 at 10:33 pm (3 years ago)

    Beautifully written and so true. Thank you Sara for sharing as always with such honesty and so personally. The more airing and de-stigmatising of this topic the better, as I can appreciate in my current state of PTSD, diagnosed 3 months ago, with my own trauma-focused CBT due to start this week… xx ed

    Reply
    • Sara - Darling Lovely Life editor
      January 7, 2014 at 10:39 pm (3 years ago)

      So much love Ed. I know it’s been a while but you know where I am if you ever need an ear. Wishing you strength and success with your treatment xxx

      Reply
  4. Beth Whelan
    January 8, 2014 at 5:24 pm (3 years ago)

    What a wonderful post. I am hugely guilty of being insensitive and thoroughly useless when dealing with a family member suffering in this way. I feel so afraid and helpless when listening to them and always revert to the ‘pull yourself together’ mode! Keep writing honey. Plebs like me need more info to work with.

    Reply
  5. Beth
    January 8, 2014 at 9:06 pm (3 years ago)

    Thanks for writing this, it’s not an easy thing to talk about. I’m in the same boat, having dealt with episodes of depression and anxiety attacks since my early teens. One of my friends, who has also struggled with anxiety and depression, shared this lovely short film about empathy recently which I thought people who read this post might like to see too : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Evwgu369Jw

    Reply
  6. Peter
    January 13, 2014 at 1:12 am (3 years ago)

    Nicely done. I wish people realized how horrible this disease is. I deal with it every day and it never gets better. No outward symptoms. No blood squirting out. Just internal terror 24/7. It ruins life, period.

    Reply
  7. Sarah Dickinson
    October 27, 2014 at 5:19 am (3 years ago)

    Very well wriiten and accurate article. In your experience, does an anxiety episode always pass eventually? I am in the middle of one right now and it doesn’t feel like it.

    Reply
    • Sara - Darling Lovely Life editor
      October 28, 2014 at 9:16 am (3 years ago)

      Yes it always passes eventually – I promise. But if you’re really struggling and you don’t feel like you can get through it alone there is NO shame at all in getting help from a qualified counsellor who can help you with coping mechanisms. HUGE hugs xxxx

      Reply

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