What Can Others Do Or Say To Help Someone Experiencing Depression?
What Can Others Do Or Say To Help Someone Experiencing Depression?
It can be frustrating to say the least when it comes to others not knowing how to help or what to say to someone experiencing depression. Many things can be said with the best of intentions but are actually not helpful and perhaps even damaging. Other things may be said more out of frustration as we just don’t know what else to try to say. Many reasons can contribute to not knowing what we can say to help someone with depression. Firstly, a general guide is that it is generally better not to try to cheer up a person with depression. We might have the best intentions in our hearts but this strategy usually just doesn’t get anywhere. Healing needs to come at least partly from within particular aspects of a person (including psychological, emotional, and perhaps spiritually and biologically and there are also other elements such as cognitive elements). Indeed, external influences can play a part, but the point here is that you cannot MAKE someone better by external influences such as comments like “cheer up, tomorrow’s another day”.
Sometimes a person experiencing depression can hardly recall happiness at all so it is even a harder concept to take on board. It is like giving a person some medicine where the the medicine is like an external influential “fix-it” factor. The person needs to take it in and digest it. But it will only work if it is the RIGHT medicine. Trying to help someone by using best-intended comments can be like giving the wrong medicine. It just does not get digested or processed in the person’s mind at all as they may probably not believe it as it has not come from within their own belief system. It is partly because it is the wrong “medicine” in the first place. It is bound not to have any positive affects. There are “medicines” available for a person experiencing depression and it can come in the form of things such as therapy, ECT (Electro-convulsive therapy; as controversial as this is), and medication itself. However, these forms of “medicines” are used by competent professionals. ECT involves the use of electricity as an external influencing factor, yet it is “digested” within a person’s brain. Likewise, therapy can be like utilising external influences yet the concepts, theories, techniques and general aspects of therapy need to be taken on ( or absorbed) within a person.
* I am here for you
* even though I do not understand exactly how you feel, I know that things are difficult for you
* I may not totally understand, but I care
* you are important to me
* you are important to others
* I won’t leave you
* I know you love me
* you are significant
* you are valuable to me.
* you can talk to the person (with depression) about their improvements in the present even just by recognising them not necessarily making a story about them.
* if or once the person is able to start recognising some desired goals (and this could take quite some time though and it may “simply” involve things such as cooking a meal, taking the dog for a walk or getting up before 10 a.m. or whatever), they might be able to then start to recognise initial positive steps which can lead to greater goals and achievements.
What about things that DON’T help?
Do NOT use “you” statements!
A “you” statement goes something along the lines of:
You + a description of the person + how the person “makes” you feel.
For example, ” you are so miserable, it makes me depressed too”.
You + a description of the person + the result/s of that person’s traits or states of being.
For example, ” you are so miserable that nobody wants to be around you”.
You + a description of the person + how others feel.
For example, ” you are so miserable that it affects everybody else too”.
You make me + a description of how you are feeling + a description of the person
For example, ” you make me depressed too because YOU are so depressed”.
Get the idea? These things DON’T help! What is better then?
You can use “I” statements.
The last thing a person with depression needs to hear is something like:
“You are making everybody else feel depressed too”.
An “I” statement uses another tact and tackles the problem from a completely different point of view. An “I” statement is simply:
I + how you are feeling + a short description of the presenting problem.
For example, “I feel annoyed when you tell me what to do”.
“I feel saddened when you promise to do something with me and you don’t”.
“I feel frustrated that you do not take your tablets”.
This sounds like a pretty easy format to remember, doesn’t it? By using “I” statements, you consequently invite the other person to adopt a non-defensive mind-set or to put it simply; you invite them to be non-defensive.
The problem is that you are now possibly ‘making’ the other person become responsible for how YOU feel, and this should not be the case. It just leads to more problems, more frustration, pains, confusion and the like. The point is that the other person does not or can not CONTROL your feelings. Your feelings are YOURS, not theirs! Yes, they can control or be responsible for particular situations to a point, but they can’t control YOUR feelings. YOU own them.
So by deflecting your feelings onto the person, it puts them in a defensive mind-set. This may sound like you may be then “controlling” them, but it is more like you are firing ammunition at them. They still ultimately own their own thoughts and feelings but it is like “stirring” them up a bit to retaliate back to you. It is like throwing a stone at somebody and getting a boulder thrown back at you. It doesn’t work. What does then? “I” statements are a good starting point. There is more to resolving conflict or misunderstandings or trying to diffuse difficult situations than this, but it is a start ( examples are by using basic communication skills such as reflection of feeling and content, and utilising basic conflict resolution skills such as “negative assertion”, but we will look at this another time). It will not “cure” somebody with depression, but at least you are now stating how you feel without making it sound as though THEY are responsible for what YOU are ultimately responsible for. A person with depression may already feel guilty enough as it is.
What else could you try then?
If you are trying to relate to or communicate with somebody with depression and perhaps even trying to help, validation is another good starting point. Let them know that you realise (not necessarily understand) how they feel. The person will be likely to feel heard and they may also feel that you are NOT against them or some other possible implication or connotation.
People experiencing depression can benefit from:
* feeling heard/acknowledged.
* feeling as though you want to try to understand.
* not feeling alone/rejected.
* not feeling judged or condemned.
* NOT feeling as though THEY are responsible for everything including YOU.
So if you want to try something in your communication with a person with depression, perhaps the following few ideas may be of some benefit or at least trying:
1. Clarify things (matters) that seem to be causing problems.
2. Try to recognise or identify any automatic thoughts, assumptions or beliefs that you might have that revolve around or are directly associated with any problems (we will look at this closer another time).
3. Describe your own perspectives relating to any problems.
An expansion on the first 2 points:
1. Clarifying a situation may help to minimise misunderstandings which can help help minimise the chances of many other problems following. Of course, when you are talking to somebody experiencing depression, this does not mean that you could try to clarify the depression itself. You already know that you are talking to somebody experiencing depression. What is meant here is to try to clarify or describe matters that are of any concern or importance to you and/or the person experiencing depression. For example, rather than assuming that the person experiencing depression ( let’s say “Berny”) doesn’t want to take his tablets, you may try something such as to ask him if this IS the case, or perhaps something else such as fears about side-effects or whatever else. It may be that Berny has develpoed a concern or fear or perhaps even feel anxious about what others may think or say or perhaps even do. It could be anything really. The act of assuming without knowing the facts or having evidence may be quite detrimental. Maybe it could even be that he forgets, although some may see this as a poor excuse. The point is: try not to assume things.
There are particular communication skills or techniques that can come in very handy indeed while talking to someone with depression, or in fact in almost any circumstance including relationships in general. Such skills include practicing techniques such as:
Using techniques such as these can help an awful lot in contributing to better and clearer understanding through clarification of presenting problems or gaining better insight into factors that may be evident or significant to you while dealing with depression.
2. Automatic thoughts, faulty assumptions and beliefs to mislead us to some degree or be detrimental for us in various ways if we tend to look at these thoughts as the way things HAVE to be or the way things are without us being able to control what we CAN actually control, influence or change, or indeed believe these automatic thoughts, beliefs or assumptions as “gospel” in that there are no alternatives.
For example, if we have an automatic thought such as “I can’t stand this depression anymore”, we may tend to take this on as a belief that can’t be challenged ( or too difficult to be challenged) and start to look at this belief as totally controlling us (or in other words, think that we can do nothing about our depression and that it is completely intolerable). Most certainly by validating our feelings we may feel like we are being heard and we may start to deal with our feelings, but perceiving initial thoughts as the way that things are or have to be that can not be challenged or improved for the better may contribute to us remaining stuck in a rut such as being stuck in a depressive episode.
Automatic thoughts are not necessarily inaccurate or misleading, but they can have influences on aspects of ourselves such as our self-concept if they happen to be irrational types of beliefs or thoughts. Of course an automatic thought may be based on something that is factual such as if one was to take ten packets of medication (such as anti-depressants) at once, then the person may die, and of course this is not misleading or false. It could also be based on opinions such as witnessing a gorgeous sunset and thinking it is the most beautiful sunset you have ever seen, and who is to argue this? But, sometimes automatic thoughts can lead us a little astray if they happen to be irrational. So, if someone was to say “I can’t take this depression anymore”, yes it is generally useful to validate the person’s feelings and acknowledge what they are saying, however, there there does happen to be alternative beliefs, ideas, thoughts or statements that one could adopt. An example is that Berny (who has depression) may re-state his automatic thought of “I can’t stand this depression anymore” to something along the lines of “I don’t like having depression but I can tolerate it until I get better”. It may also be that Berny’s beliefs may be better served to be challenged or altered, but it is not easy to do let alone to develop better or healthier beliefs in a short period of time. It takes work, and we need time to do it. However, if one can start to take more rational alternative thoughts into their internal belief system (or “beings”) then we may start to re-construct parts of ourselves which may aid in the healing or management of depression.
Counsellors, therapists, psychologists and the like may also refer to terms such as “an internal locus of control” and “an external locus of control”. A person with an internal locus of control believes that they can change or influence matters in their lives that CAN be changed, or have the capacity to control what becomes of their lives (within realms of reality and practicality), and a person with an external locus of control tends to think and believe that they are destined to a particular fete and that they can not change anything or influence anything at all as if being “external” to everything which could be likened to being like “a puppet on a string”. A person with an external locus of control will tend to believe statements such as “you break me……………..”, rather than “I feel…………………..”. The first person here in a way disowns responsibility by “blaming” external things/events/ circumstances or other people rather than taking on an attitude such as that even if others are to blame, you can react to it by your own choice and take actions or your own beliefs of your OWN will; from within; internal, not from outside or external.
A person with depression often takes on an attitude and belief system such as a person who has an external locus of control. Berny who had depression may think and believe that he can’t get better or that there is no hope for a better future. A new problem may then arise for Berny such as losing his wife through separation or divorse and automatic thoughts could be along the lines of “I can’t do anything now to meet other people” and this could be founded on a belief of him thinking that he is unlovable or that he will never find anyone else”. These thoughts (from a cognitive-behaviour perspective) ideally need to be dealt with a goal of forming alternative thoughts and beliefs that are “healthy”to put it simply.
A peer support worker can also be someone who can listen to you without going into the realms of therapy. It can be useful and it can also be helpful. Contact the team at Beyond My Label to ask about getting some support from one of our peers. We are here to listen.
Article written by Paul Inglis (founder of Beyond my Label).