What do you say?

When someone tells you they have depression or anxiety, what do you say?

Our track record hasn’t been great; despite the number of ‘I am hope’ FB statuses, many people are still simply unprepared for a vulnerable share; a share that lets the recipient know that the sharer is not the best.  The immediate default responses seem to be:

  • You’ll be right

  • It’ll be okay

  • Cheer up

And I’d like to think people trot out these 3 responses simply because they don’t know what else to say.  That’s 100% understandable, and if you find yourself in that category then give yourself some grace, us humans are, well, human.  And we do stuff up from time to time.

Why are these responses wrong?

Responses like this simply invalidate the suffering that comes with depression and anxiety.  People who suffer from these illnesses do not choose to have them.  Given the option the vast majority of sufferers would gladly trade their anxiety and depression for a broken arm or leg; simply because these ailments, while painful and inconvenient are also fixable and come with a “You’ll be better by date” which is usually 99% accurate. 

The responses of “You’ll be right” and “It’ll be okay” don’t help.  They don’t do anything because the person speaking them can’t possibly know that the words they are speaking are true.  As far as the sufferer is concerned, these responses are unhelpful and off putting.  They certainly don’t exude kindness, compassion or empathy in any way.  

And “Cheer up” is just plain dumb.  Top of the hopefully list is the wish to cheer up.  If they would, they could and telling them to cheer up is like “Duh.  Do you not think I’ve already tried that one?”  The cheering up wish is simply going to make suffers feel worse because cheering up will have been something they’ve been trying very hard to do and  reinforces that there must be something wrong with them if they can’t simply ‘cheer up’.  

Yes, there are worse things to say & these are surprisingly common.

Other responses are way less understanding but still pass as stock standard responses.  These less than caring responses usually sound like:

  • You don’t look sick.

  • What do you have to be depressed about?

  • Get over it.

  • Harden up.

Are these put down responses helpful?  Not in any way.  They effectively close off any chance of a connection or a conversation that could be constructive or useful.  People using these responses may feel that depression and anxiety are a cop out, but the reality is that they are not.

You’re probably wondering about what the best thing to say is  

The best thing to say is simply “That really sucks.”  Or “Bummer.”  Or “That’s no good.” Something empathetic.  Then give them a good hug if that’s appropriate.  

While you’re doing that I want you to imagine that the same person is standing in front of you with a really obvious physical injury, like a broken arm for example.  And think about how you would respond to that.  You’d naturally ask “How did that happen?” “What did you do about it?” People expect you to be curious about a physical injury.  If they’ve taken the time to share about a mental illness then you should absolutely 100% be curious about that too.  Instead of asking the “How did that happen?” question, a better way to phrase it would be “Did this happen suddenly?  Or has it been creeping up for a while?”  They may be able to identify a tipping point, although it might simply be a combination of events that has led them to where they are now.  

The next most important question is “What are you doing about it?”  And be prepared to listen to their responses.  Please don’t offer suggestions though “Have you tried ….” If they have and it hasn’t worked for them or it just plain doesn’t appeal to them, that can make them feel worse too.  So just listen, ask them how those things are working for them.  And congratulate them for taking steps to help themselves.  

The other most important question is “How can I help?”  They might not know the answer to that question, and that’s ok.  But walk away from that conversation with a curious question mark in your mind to think about what you can do to help - a regular weekly phone call?  A call to someone they haven’t seen for a while tipping them off to help out?  A chance to turn up with a home cooked meal?  Or to take their kid out for a walk?  It’s always different but know that help given without it being asked for is the gold medal for people who are struggling.  And never believe them when they say “We’re okay/fine thanks.”   Just don’t take it personally and keep on being there for them.  I know I had friends who I would tell “Yes, I know, I promise I’ll ring” when I fully knew I wouldn’t.  And I was also blessed with friends who turned up unexpectedly to see how my day was, or to drop off an excess of fruit from their garden, or arrived with 2 coffees and a store brought cake to share.  Those little acts of kindness were the ones that truly made all the difference.

Is there an elephant in the room?

At this point I’m going to add that if your intuition is telling you to ask them “Have you been thinking about killing yourself?” Then please go ahead and ask. Call it.  Surface it.  If they say “Yes”, then ask them if they have a plan.  And if they have the means.  I’m going to be really blunt here, and point out that if you get this type of information from another person don’t just sit on it.  And even if they ask you to keep it secret, just don’t.  Figure something out.

Sharing about depression and anxiety is hard

It takes real courage and vulnerability to share a struggle that carries a very real risk of judgement.  But to not share is to let the secrecy dictate the idea that there is something very wrong with you, and something very shameful about you that has caused you to have depression and anxiety.  And that is simply not true.  The more we share about mental health struggles, the more we break down the shame barrier and the more we teach others who have been so far fortunate to have not been touched by the reach of these debilitating illnesses.