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7 Things Not to Say to Someone Who's Depressed

These words can just make it worse
7 Things Not to Say to Someone Who's Depressed

"Depressed? Get over it, sister!"

If you had a friend who was suffering from depression, you most likely would not tell her to snap out of it. Yet so many of the well-meaning things we do say ring just as cruel in the ears of the one in ten Americans who have reported suffering from depression.

Today's Christian Woman asked those who've endured depression to let us know which "well-meaning" comments were the hardest to hear. We share them with you so that you'll be better equipped to care for those who suffer.

1. "Your sin has caused your suffering."

If "sin" includes all that misses the mark of God's gracious intentions for humanity, then yes, sin—in its most sweeping expression—is at the root of all manner of diseases and afflictions. This trite aphorism, however, more often serves to dismiss the biochemical reality of depression.

To someone who's hurting, this admonition sounds like telling a person who lives with paralysis of the legs to 'run faster.'
  • "Maybe you need to ask Jesus what sin has you captive." This is no doubt offered in the hopes of seeing someone who is hurting experience relief. Yet it also carries shame by suggesting that the sufferer is responsible for her emotional anguish.
  • "You aren't really trusting the Lord enough." To someone who's hurting, this admonition sounds like telling a person who lives with paralysis of the legs to "run faster." Most likely, the Christian person enduring depression is already trusting God as much as she is able.
  • "If you have enough faith, you will feel better." Spiritualizing depression—denying its biochemical component—is a subtle form of spiritual abuse. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The person without emotional resources—sometimes due to a chemical imbalance—isn't able to generate either "faith" or "good feelings."

2. "You should be thankful."

Insisting that a person who suffers should be thankful might make the speaker feel a bit better, but it offers nothing to the person on the receiving end of the insensitive remark.

  • "There are people with much bigger problems than yours." There are . . . and there aren't. Yes, others do suffer horrific atrocities. However, this curt dismissal minimizing the experience of those who are hurting communicates to someone that her pain doesn't matter to you.
  • "You're too blessed to be stressed." Being blessed with food, clothing, and shelter is irrelevant to the experience of depression. The truth is that depression afflicts people of all races, religions, and socioeconomic brackets. (Also, beware of spiritual admonitions that rhyme.)
  • "You have so much to be thankful for." Likely the person suffering from depression is aware of her blessings. That awareness will not, in any way, alleviate the painful reality of her depression.

3. "God is the author of your suffering."

For those who believe in a sovereign God, there can be a temptation to believe that God causes human suffering. And though we may never intend either to hurt our suffering friends or to throw God under the theological bus, some of our remarks do just that.

  • "Everything happens for a reason." While the speaker no doubt intends to offer hope, the reality is that the world is filled with senseless suffering. This remark can suggest that the sufferer is only an expendable pawn in a larger story that benefits someone else.
  • "God is teaching you something." While God does redeem suffering, often shaping us more into the image of Christ, this quick insistence paints a picture of a God who carelessly wields a punishing rod.
  • "Maybe you haven't learned the lesson God is trying to teach you." To suggest the sufferer hasn't yet learned the golden lesson only heaps shame upon pain.

4. "This is your fault."

While most people aren't crass enough to tell friends or family members who are enduring depression that their suffering is their own fault, they may yet say it in a myriad of less explicit ways.

  • "You take things too seriously." Telling someone they take things too seriously or are overly sensitive only compounds their hurt.
  • "Get off those pills!" Or its opposite: "Are you taking your medicine?" Those who are particularly averse to using medication for emotional suffering may insist that the medication meant to treat depression actually causes it. While medications at times do need to be adjusted, quitting an anti-depressant cold turkey will not alleviate depression. Asking a suffering person if she is on her medication usually isn't necessary because she is likely already doing everything she knows how to do to get relief. If you do need to ask— because someone is truly disoriented and unable to care for herself—be as gentle and kind as you can be.
  • "Just don't think that way." This blunt command suggests that a person experiencing depression has chosen it and that she can instead choose relief. Relief from depression is typically more complicated than simply choosing to think new thoughts.

5. "It's not that bad."

A person enduring depression may long for her hurt to be recognized by her loved ones. It's counterintuitive, right? Friends who mean well might think that minimizing the experience of depression is a kindness. Unfortunately, the opposite is more often true. Denying a person's painful reality usually only compounds her pain and loneliness.

  • "It's just the weather." Let's assume this is true. Someone who's sensitive to changes in weather (who suffers from seasonal affective disorder) isn't bummed because she can't go to the beach. She is truly hurting.
  • "Well, at least . . . " A number of our readers listed variations of "Well, at least . . ." statements, which end with some fate the sufferer has somehow fortuitously dodged ("at least you have your health," "at least you have food to eat," and so on). In the interest of self-preservation, the hurting person likely stopped listening right after the dismissive "Well, at least . . ."
  • "You just need to get outside and exercise." The grain of truth, here, is that exercise can often help those who wrestle with depression, but exercise alone is usually not the solution to depression. Unfortunately, "just" statements can feel shaming to those who suffer.

6. "You're not really suffering."

Some may dismiss others' suffering entirely. Although these cool dismissals actually say more about the speaker than the person facing depression, they can still sting deeply.

  • "We don't have depression in our family." Would announcing "We don't have cancer in our family" make a patient's cancer diagnosis any more palatable? Most likely, we'd find the denial to be cruel—and that's just how a denial of depression rings in the ears of a person who's depressed.
  • "It's not that bad." Actually, it is. Enough said.
  • "It's all in your head." Technically, whether situational or biochemical in nature, this is probably—at some level—true! But the clear and hurtful suggestion is that the person enduring depression has somehow concocted her own suffering!

7. "Let me tell you about my experience . . . "

While many who've endured depression know, from their own experience, how to respond to fellow sufferers, many others seem to have forgotten.

  • "I know just how you feel." While this commiseration may be well intentioned, you probably don't know just how another feels. This can actually leave someone feeling lonelier and less understood.
  • "My depression was much worse." Though you might genuinely intend to help, trying to "outdo" another's suffering only leaves her feeling more isolated and alone.
  • "You need to see my therapist." The suggestion is that you know exactly what will help the suffering person. Even if you happen to be right, a person may find difficulty generating hope that "the next thing" will be the magic bullet.

What you can say instead

Though there's no magic formula, people who suffer from depression long to be seen and heard and known and loved. Our readers who've endured the agony of depression have offered some of the words that have, at times, helped:

"I'm so sorry you're hurting."

"Can I sit with you?"

"Do you want to tell me how I can pray for something specific?"

"I love you."

"That really stinks. I'm sorry."

"You're not alone."

"I don't know what to say, but I want you to know I care."

"If you'd like, I'd love to take a walk with you sometime."

Or, of course, you can be quiet. You can listen. You can simply be there.

The truth is that our good intentions—our love—for a person who is suffering must be expressed not only in our words, but also in our demeanor, our listening, and our empathy. We speak a loud "I love you" when we are faithful to check in, to care, to contact a suffering friend rather than give up because it's hard work or because we don't understand. We can say so much more—speak so much more love—in our patience, kindness, and gentleness. And our self-control—our willingness to stop that word of advice or that "helpful" saying that's on the tip of our tongue—can communicate volumes.

Margot Starbuck is writer, speaker, TCW regular contributor, and author of several books, including her most recent, Not Who I Imagined: Surprised by a Loving God (Baker Books). Connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, or at MargotStarbuck.com.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

Margot Starbuck

Margot Starbuck, award-winning writer and speaker, is a graduate of Westmont College and Princeton Theological Seminary. A TCW regular contributor and columnist, Margot speaks regularly on discipleship, justice, and living love in the world God loves. Connect with Margot on Facebook, Twitter, or at MargotStarbuck.com.

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Compassion; Depression; Friendship; Listening; Love; Patience; Understanding
Today's Christian Woman, May Week 2, 2014
Posted May 14, 2014

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