Since coming out about my on-off relationship with depression, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve asked me stuff and told me things. Some have been extremely helpful, some not so much.
Here’s my handy guide on what not to say to someone like me:
- Please don’t ask “So why do you think you get depressed?” If I knew that, I’d fix it. I’m trying to find out, but it’s a work in progress.
- Please don’t say “Have you thought about exercise?” You bet I have. And now I’m in recovery, I’d love you to come for a walk or bike ride with me. And see if you can keep up.
- Please don’t say things like “When I retire, I’m worried I might get depression like you did. How can I avoid it?” I don’t know! What I do know is that depression isn’t caused by one thing. If you’ve got to this stage in life without experiencing it, chances are you never will. But I can’t make any promises.
- Please don’t say “When I get depressed, I always…. (insert favourite pastime/exercise/indulgence.)” Thanks for the information, but you haven’t had depression. Or you wouldn’t say that.
- Please don’t say ” Do you think talking/writing about your depression might make it worse/bring it on?” No I don’t. Sure, exploring this stuff is painful. But psychological wounds are like physical ones. They won’t heal if you simply cover them up. They will fester. To heal properly, wounds need sunlight and oxygen. Being open is the antidote to the nasty old stigma which makes people who don’t experience mental illness feel embarrassed about it and people like me who do feel ashamed.
- Please don’t say “I never thought of you as the sort of person to get depression. I always thought you were so strong.” Yes. And that’s part of the problem. If you read Tim Cantopher’s Depressive Illness: The Curse of the Strong, it will help to invert your thinking about depression. As it did mine.
- If I’m not on medication, please don’t tell me that I should be taking it. If I am, please don’t pass judgement, or ask if I have thought about talking therapies instead. And please don’t call antidepressants “happy pills”. People with physical illnesses such as cancer or heart disease don’t need well-intentioned, uninformed amateurs to opine on their treatment. People with mental illnesses are the same. It is neither good nor bad to take medication. It is just sometimes an essential part of getting better or staying well.
- Please don’t say “You seem too jolly/optimistic to get depression.” Again, do read Tim Cantopher. Depression is rarely a permanent state. For me, the stark contrast between how I feel when depressed and my state when well is close to unbearable.
Depression isn’t the same thing as sadness. In my case, it is a combination of self-loathing and emptiness. But we are all different. See my letter to you for further info. It includes the details of the book I mentioned above.
Having listed some Please Don’ts, here is a precis of what I have found, through experience, really helps.
- Hold my hand when I need it
- Be patient
- Listen carefully and don’t overreact
- Resist judging
- Encourage me to seek professional help if I seem to be going round in circles
- Tell me you won’t allow me to let this thing define me
- Avoid defining me by it yourself
- At the same time, allow me to incorporate it into my life.
Like anyone who experiences any form of mental illness, be it lifelong or more fleeting, I am so much more than it. But it is also part of me. I am learning to accept this, as I hope you can too. Not for me, but for the 1:4 people who experience mental illness from time to time. Because this is the only way we will truly eradicate the stigma that so besets us.
Thank you for your kindness in reading this. It means a lot.