There are plenty of blogs, websites and documents that explain what people should and should not say to somebody who is living with a mental illness. Most of the time these comments are said innocently, assuming what they say will change the thought process of the other person. But with the fantastic effort of mental health charities and anti-stigma champions it is now at the point where ignorance is no longer an excuse.
The sentence that makes my skin crawl with unease and frustration is ‘you have no reason to be depressed’. I have had close friends and relatives say this to me more than asking me if I am alright. Why do I take such offence of this? Firstly, it is personal, because the word 'you' is used. Secondly, it is incredibly judgmental, as if knowing exactly what the other person is thinking and feeling. People say this because they do not understand why somebody, who looks happy and well on the outside, should be feeling so low in the inside, and hope that saying this will trigger a thought in their mind. Unfortunately, that is far from the truth. Telling somebody who is suffering from depression that they have no reason to will only add more hurt and frustration. Why is that?
- Depression is not an emotion, it is an illness. Whilst people can control emotions, to a degree, people cannot control whether they will become depressed or not. Considering how painful (physically and emotionally) depression is people would chose NOT to be depressed.
- Nobody has the right to judge others. So let me use an example below.
Jim is in his mid-thirties. He has been married for almost ten years and has two young children. He works full time as a quality manager and the commute is relatively easy, his wife works at the local nursery part time. He enjoys taking the children to the park to feed the ducks and reads fantasy novels in his spare time.
The passage gives the impression that Jim has a somewhat idyllic life. He works, he has a home, wife, children and hobbies. But Jim suffers from depression. You may read the passage back and think ‘but he has no reason to be depressed’. Would you tell Jim that? How do you think Jim would feel?
Let’s go back to the passage. Jim is married with two young children. The marriage is at breaking point and they constantly row. One of his children suffers from autism so his spare time is often spent on the children to keep them entertained or calm. He works as a quality manager. At work he is getting bullied by other colleagues and the work is often too much for him to cope with. Whilst he enjoys reading and taking the children to the park he has recently lost the enjoyment and interest he had for those activities. Because of stress at work and home he is often overeating for comfort, he suffers from headaches, backache and stomach ache and he does not sleep enough, which is often fractured. He is still troubled by a trauma from his childhood that often appears in dreams and flashbacks.
People who suffer from depression will not necessarily have a situation in their life to cause or contribute to their illness. For some people depression can appear out of the blue. However depression starts it can leave the person feeling drained, hopeless and at fault. People often over or undereat, have fractured sleep and rise early, suffer from aches and pains and become possessed by negative thoughts. In some cases people may self harm, have suicidal thoughts or even attempt suicide.
Now considering how people feel during depression if you were to tell them ‘you have no reason to be depressed’ how do you think that will make them feel? It certainly will not achieve the effect that may be intended. It will only add to the hatred they have towards themselves, the frustration they already feel and the hopelessness.
So what should you do?
- Let your friend or family member know that you are there to listen. A simple text to say ‘How are you?’ goes a long way.
- Make time to see them, suggest a day out shopping, dinner at a restaurant or watch a film at the cinema.
- Never judge and never assume how they feel. Instead, say phrases like ‘I can see how this is making you feel.’ Never say you understand if you don’t.
- Avoid clichés, saying phrases like ‘pull yourself together’ and ‘chin up’ is counterproductive. If it was that easy then people would not be depressed!
- Be careful of what you say. Old phrases like ‘looney bin’, ‘mental home’, ‘you’re mental’ and ‘he’s nuts’ can be very offensive.
Time to Change, Rethink and Mind have pages dedicated to tips on what to say and how to be there for somebody who is suffering from a mental illness. Some of the information above has been pinched from those sites. The links below will help you:
Remember, that one text, note or conversation could make a huge difference to somebody who is suffering from a mental illness. Let somebody know today that you are thinking of them.