How can you encourage and support this person, especially if you are not prone to depression yourself? To begin with, it will help if you do not say any of the following:
“Just cheer up” (or its equally hurtful cousins, “Smile!” and “Look on the bright side!”). Telling a depressed person to “just cheer up” shows that you believe overcoming depression is an act of will. Depression is not something its sufferers can simply choose their way out of. Being depressed is not a mood or a personality trait or a character flaw. Sufferers are not depressed because they are ungrateful or pessimistic. A depressed person cannot “cure” themselves simply by deciding not to be depressed. If a person is not too deep into the pit of depression, I believe they can choose to take steps toward recovery: medication; counseling; proper diet and rest; support groups. But none of these are instant “cures,” and if a person is severely depressed, it many actually not be possible for their brain to process these options. From the outside, you may think, “How hard is it? Just take your pill!” But beyond the complications of drug side-effects and the challenge of finding both the right medication and the right dose of it, what is obvious to a healthy brain is not necessarily obvious to a broken brain. Which brings me to my next point…
“It’s all in your mind.” Well, yes, actually, it is, but if by saying this you mean that depression is an invented malady with no basis in reality, you need to find something else to say. (More on that in a minute.) Depression is a disease of the mind. My layperson explanation, based on my own reading and research, goes like this: the brain is made up of a bunch of cells that talk to each other. These cells are separated by little “moats.” When Cell A wants to say something to Cell B, it sends the message across the moat via a chemical messenger called a neurotransmitter. In a depressed brain, these chemical messengers are either not there or are not particularly effective. So Cell A in a healthy brain might tell Cell B, “It is not the end of the world that such-and-such just happened,” and Cell B gets the message and does not overreact to such-and-such. Meanwhile, in the depressed brain, the “it’s not the end of the world” message does not get communicated at all or gets communicated poorly, and the person to whom this brain belongs gets completely overwhelmed by whatever no-big-deal-to-a-healthy-brain thing just happened. This is where medication can help by pumping up those chemical messengers or making them better at their jobs. But there is no one-pill-one-dosage “cure” for depression, and even if they help (a big “if,” since some depression is drug-resistant), drugs are usually only one part of a complex plan for managing.
“You seem fine to me.” Our American society does not handle depression well (or, really, any moods other than fine and happy). People who are introverted, moody, discouraged, melancholy, or struggling are encouraged to get over it–now. As a result, many depressed people get very good at acting as if they are what people want: happy, cheerful, and, above all else, fine. You may not be able to tell if someone is depressed simply by looking at them, in the same way that you cannot always tell if someone has cancer. The best description of depression I’ve ever heard is that it is “living death.” Because our society also does not deal well with death, depression’s victims often work very hard at looking as if they are living normally.
What should you say to encourage or support a depressed person in your life? Here are some starting points:
“I’m so sorry.” Just as you would use these words to console someone who has received a diagnosis of cancer or who has lost a loved one, so, too, you can comfort a depressed person with these words. If you have never been on the receiving end of this underused phrase, you may doubt its usefulness. Don’t. If you mean them, these words are powerfully simple and simply powerful. They convey your sympathy–that while you do not know how the other person is feeling (which would be empathy), you are pained by what pains them.
“What can I do to help?” This is a slightly different and better question than the pat, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Directly asking what you can do indicates that you are ready to take action if the depressed person can specify what would be helpful. This is the sticking point, however. Your loved one or friend or coworker may not know what will help them, and you may not know, either. You may think what they “need” is a party or a pedicure or a plan, but just because something sounds like a good idea to you does not mean it will be helpful to someone else. Depression’s victim may need someone to drive them to counseling or someone to remind them to take their medication or someone to help with their children while they fight just to get out of bed. Everyday life is very overwhelming when it is cloaked in the cloud of depression, so consider such practical helps as meal delivery, errand-running, or yard work.
“I care about you/I’m on your side/I’m here for you/I’m in this with you for the long haul.” Loving (as in love, the verb, not love the feeling) a depressed person is not easy. You may often feel annoyed or frustrated. You will need to summon up patience, commitment, and grace again and again. Depressed people need to know that they are loved, cherished, and valued even if they never “kick” their depression. This does not mean you have to like their disease or how they act of feel in the throes of it. It does not mean you excuse their actions–or lack thereof. People with and without depression need to be held accountable by those close to them. But this accountability must be motivated by a true desire for the sufferer’s wellness, not by your own longing to see your friend or relative feel and act in ways that are easier on you.
I fight my personal struggle against lifelong, low-level depression through a combination of exercise, supplements, healthy eating, careful monitoring of my schedule, rest, prayer, and the unconditional support and patience of my husband and two daughters. Through their actions, through what they say, and through what they don’t say, they speak the most healing words of all: “I love you.”