Those who know and love people with depression usually want nothing other than to help. But during the times I've been depressed, even the most well-intentioned efforts to help often backfired.
While most of the things people told me while I was depressed stemmed from compassion, they also stemmed from their misguided belief that they could treat my depression. Ultimately, there was nothing anybody could have said to cure me. It was probably a combination of time and medication that transformed me from an often-depressed adolescent into an occasionally depressed adult. Implying that you can cure someone's depression undermines the severity of the condition, as does throwing out suggestions that have likely occurred to them already.
Here are some statements and questions to avoid if you don't want to make matters worse for someone who is already feeling bad:
1. Have you tried getting eating better/sleeping less/exercising more/getting more light? If depression could be cured that easily, nobody would suffer from it. Most people with depression have already tried everything in the book and more.
2. There's nothing to be upset about. There's actually a lot in the world to be upset about; people with depression just spend more time aware of it.
3. There's no use dwelling on things. You are correct; there's no use in having depression, just like there's no use in having cancer, yet here we all are.
4. Everything will be OK. This fact hasn't escaped our awareness, but things still feel pretty shitty right now.
5. What are you sad about? Depression isn't really “about” anything except a chemical imbalance. Depressed people feel bad about a lot of things, but those things didn't cause the depression.
6. You should get out and do something fun. OK, I'll get cracking at that once I muster up the energy to put my shoes on.
7. You should be glad just to be able-bodied. I'd love to be happy about my physical abilities — or literally anything — but unfortunately, I can't turn my mood on and off with a switch. And as an aside, it's offensive to disabled people to suggest that people should be happy not to be them.
8. You'd feel better if you smiled more. What I do with my face is nobody else's business, and again, if beating depression were that easy, nobody would be depressed.
9. Don't cry. With the exception of actors playing a role, most people, depressed or otherwise, don't intentionally cry. If you see someone cry, you're probably seeing tears they tried to fight back. Don't make them feel worse for letting them escape.
10. There are people with much worse problems than you. That's very true, but knowing that some people get third-degree burns doesn't make first-degree burns hurt less.
11. You're not truly better if you're relying on medication. It would be great to get out of bed every morning, do my job, and engage in social activities without psychiatric assistance. But popping a pill every night is way preferable to missing out on everything life has to offer.
12. Just cheer up. You would never tell someone with a cold to just stop coughing. Depression is also a physical ailment beyond our control; the problem is just in our brains rather than in our throats.
So, if you can't say these things, what do you say? I would recommend asking a loved one with depression if there's anything you can do for them. That way, you'll know what they want rather than guessing and potentially getting it wrong. And if their answer is that there's nothing you can do, that's OK. You might feel useless, but how they feel is more important. Plus, even if you can't help, they may take comfort in just knowing you want to.