Trying to Talk about Depression When They Just Don't Get It

by John Folk-Williams Patient Expert

In the last post, I described ways of talking about depression to my wife and close friends that have helped me get through to them. But there's another side to the story, as I'm sure you know from your own experience. You often face members of your family or some of your friends - the people you most want to be able to talk to - who don't understand and won't even try.

Worse than that, they might let you know they don't believe your depression is real. They've already made up their minds that you're either playing for sympathy or too weak-willed to "pull yourself together."

Many with depression live with their parents, siblings or other relatives, not just when they're young but often as adults as well. These may be the first people they look to for support because they're with them day in, day out. Big changes in behavior can't be missed. But they've learned that they can't always count on them. There are so many stories in the blogs and forums about the disbelief, indifference, contempt or outright hostility within the family.

Some relatives refuse to believe that anything could be seriously wrong, especially in their children still living at home. "It's just a phase of growing up. You'll get over it." Or if you're older, they might say it's a natural reaction to this or that bad event - "It takes time to get over it. Just hang in there."

Or they can't imagine there is such a thing as mental illness. Instead they believe it's weakness of character - even if they themselves have the same problem. I'm not sick, and you can't be sick either.

So what do you do? I don't have any magic answer, nor does anyone else writing about depression seem to have one. Although "experts" offer a lot of advice about the problem, ultimately it comes down to you and your sense of the people you hope will be supportive.

I was fortunate in finding support from my wife and a few others whose help I needed. But there were many other relatives, friends and colleagues who didn't understand.

When I consider talking about depression to anyone, there are a lot of things going through my mind. Usually, I know perfectly well the reaction I'm likely to get, but I want to reach out to them even though it's clear I'll face rejection. Maybe, there's no choice. There's no else, and I've got to try. Especially with parents - I know they should care and be supportive, but what's the reality? Or employers - either they know I'm ill, or they think I'm incompetent when job performance falls off. I may get nowhere with them, but I've got to try.

The best thing I may be able to do is adjust my expectations, depending on what I already know about the person. If I don't know what they think about depression, I'll try to find out before launching into my own problems with them.

It may seem obvious to go over these things, but whenever I'm deep in depression, I need to force myself to concentrate. A simple list always helps.

Do you look at these things too?

Your past relationship

You're never dealing with a blank slate in these relationships. Are there tensions and problems that have built up over time? Is this the right moment to add talk about your depression to the mix? Given the past, what can you expect from the relationship now?

What the Person is Like

I could never talk in depth to my parents about depression because I knew they wouldn't be very helpful. These were not assumptions about their behavior, but an understanding based years of living with them when young and then learning more about them as I grew older. In their different ways, they were completely self-absorbed and had never been very responsive to emotional issues apart from their own. I tried a couple of times as an adult. They weren't hostile but shrugged it off. I couldn't change who they were.

Your Expectations

What are you looking for by talking about your depression? Do you expect, want or need them to take care of the problem because you know you can't deal with it by yourself? Do you depend on them for financial support to get help? Do you just need some human sympathy and support? If you're not likely to get it, you can at least lower your expectations if they're not likely to be supportive. The hurt is still there, but perhaps this can soften the blow.


Triage is the method of establishing priorities for treatment in emergency rooms when the number of patients overwhelms the available help. You divide everyone into groups - those who can't survive, those whose treatment can wait, those who can survive if they get immediate attention. You could try something similar by putting the people you hope to talk to in one of these categories.

  • Those you know from experience who will never listen or take depression seriously. They're not going to change. If you have to talk to them anyway, you know what to expect. (You have to be careful and not rely on your assumptions - since they're likely to be negative about everything. Look at previous attempts to talk over sensitive issues with them before jumping to conclusions.)

  • Friends and family who were initially supportive but then stopped being sympathetic. That happens when depression goes on for years, and they see no lasting improvement. Perhaps they feel your illness is having a destructive impact on them and their own relationships. Depression can be contagious and spread to family and friends. They don't want to live with your problems anymore. It's no use going back to them now.

  • Those you know who are sympathetic by nature. Perhaps, you've already helped each other in one crisis or another. You're pretty sure you can count on them. You'll definitely try.

  • Those who fall somewhere in between. You're not really sure how they might react, and you have to decide if you're willing to risk rejection. A lot of people choose to stay on the safe side and assume they won't get help.

To avoid underestimating someone, you can try to probe a little to see if the assumption of rejection is justified. You can try to answer these questions (another one of my lists):

  • How do they react generally when the issue of mental illness comes up?

  • Have they dealt with a family member who suffered from depression or another mood or personality disorder?

  • How much empathy do they ever show for other people?

  • Are they usually open to talking about their own feelings or do they steer away from getting into them?

When all else fails, though, you still have to live with prejudice and contempt from those who just don't get and won't make any effort to change their minds. Trying to educate them won't help because they reject any evidence that contradicts what they've decided is true.

At that point, the most important thing I've had to learn is not to accept their judgment. My worst enemy is stigmatizing myself as weak, inadequate, not strong enough to stop feeling bad. In other words, I have to stop believing what my own depression is telling me.

If I can do that, then I can listen to all the disbelievers and know their reactions are their problem, not mine.

That's about all the "advice" I can offer. What is your experience with this problem? How have the naysayers affected your life?

John Folk-Williams
Meet Our Writer
John Folk-Williams

John wrote for HealthCentral as a patient expert for Depression.