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The Purple Elephant in the Room: Talking to Someone With Depression

When someone’s suffering from depression, it can be hard to find the right thing to say. Our guide will get you started.

By Deborah Gray
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If you have a friend or loved one with depression, chances are you’re trying to figure out how talk to her in a comforting and helpful way. No matter what their relationship to you – friend, family member, spouse, roommate, employee - you may be in a quandary about how to approach a conversation with them.

I certainly don’t blame you if you’re having a hard time figuring out what to say. If you haven’t been through a bout of depression yourself, talking to someone who is depressed can be extremely difficult. It’s like making your way through a minefield blindfolded. In this minefield, however, instead of avoiding bombs, you’re trying to avoid triggering the individual’s guilt, shame and fear of rejection - emotions that run extremely close to the surface when you’re dealing with depression.

Let’s start with some general tips:

  • You’re communicating with someone who is feeling extremely isolated. An individual suffering from depression feels like there’s a glass wall between him and the rest of the world. There’s also an overall feeling of “wrongness” that may make them respond negatively to everything you say. Don’t get discouraged and don’t take things personally if they’re hostile or withdrawn.
  • You don’t have to understand what the depressed person is going through to be helpful. In fact, some attempts to show that you understand can run the risk of sounding insincere. Better to admit that you can’t understand what they’re going through. Invite them to tell you how they’re feeling – it may give you some insight and make the depressed person feel better at the same time.
  • Since depression tends to rob us of the ability to articulate effectively, remember that the conversation may be fairly one-sided. Don’t feel that you have to fill up the silence.

Constructive and Helpful Remarks

Acknowledge the depression and don’t trivialize it. Let the individual know that you recognize that she’s not just lazy or feeling sorry for herself. Give the person permission to feel depressed. Don’t tell her that she’s luckier than she realizes or that everyone gets depressed sometimes. You might say:

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