Clinical depression sucks and it’s only growing more common. Almost one in two people in the U.S. will suffer from depression or another mental health condition at some point and about one in 17 Americans actually has a serious mental illness right now.
Despite its rising rates, depression can be hard to wrap your brain around, especially if you’ve never had it. It’s not easily treated or cleared up by positive thinking, or yanking yourself up by your bootstraps, or shoving your feelings to the dark corners of the back of your mind. It’s so much deeper and more insidious than that. I once described depression this way:
“None of those external [good things you have going for you] truly register or resonate when you have depression. You can logically identify them as Good Things, and you know they are supposed to make you feel Good, but you can’t feel them, they can’t get in. It’s like your brain is wearing a full-body armor designed to keep only the good things out. Bad things … get ushered in instantly, like VIPs.”
People who don’t have depression don’t always know what to say that could possibly help to a friend or family member going through the all-encompassing yet simultaneously utterly numb sensation of your own brain turning against you. Here are a few things not to say (unless you want said friend or loved one to grow homicidal as well as miserable):
1. “Cheer up” or “chin up.”
This is the be-all, end-all of insensitive ways to respond to someone who is suffering from depression. It manages to completely trivialize and invalidate their feelings at the same time — what a feat! This one is a trite, classic, never-fail nugget routinely uttered by Pollyanna-ish positive thinkers who don’t understand how you’re feeling, so they assume it must only feel as bad as the last time they got slightly sad about their boss’ mean comment or their best friend skipping their birthday party. Depression and situational sadness are not the same thing, people. If it were easy to just flip a switch and go from depressed to super-psyched on life, don’t you think we would have flipped it by now?
2. “But medication will only numb your feelings.”
People who’ve never had mental illness can sure have lots of opinions about what works to treat it. One of the most common ways I’ve witnessed this is via concerned interlopers making snarky comments about a friend’s decision to try treating their depression with psych meds. Medication can be remarkably effective for some people;60 to 70 percent of depressed patients who are given an antidepressant actually recover in three to six weeks. But still outsiders opt to butt in with their thoughts about what they’ve heard passed off as fact in dubious corners of the Internet. For lots of people with mental illnesses like depression, meds don’t numb your feelings — they make your feelings a bit more tolerable, enough to get out of bed. You can’t really put a price — or a judgment call — on that.
3. “But you have sooooo much to be thankful for!”
AGGHHH, again with the Pollyanna positive-thinking crapola! Thank you soooo much for reminding me how few “legitimate” reasons I have to be depressed (as if depression were based on cold, factual reality instead of out-of-whack chemical wiring). Thank you for making me feel guilty about being unable to just “snap out of” my illness, as if I could actually control it. I have a working understanding of the power of gratitude. I’ve tried the whole daily-gratitude-email-listserv thing — hasn’t everyone? And I have no doubt that consciously trying to name and recognize the great aspects my life could be helpful. But does that mean it will have even the tiniest hint of perceivable impact on my depression? Doubtful.
4. “Have you tried affirmations?”
The same person urging you to start coughing up daily gratitude lists is the same person who’ll oh so helpfully suggest that you try sticking Post-Its all over your apartment. These Post-Its will, clearly, contain the magical key to your mental health, and the lame, half-formed sayings you half-heartedly scrawl on them will, obviously turn your frown upside down with their clarity, power, and fervent insistence that YOU ALREADY HAVE EVERYTHING YOU NEED and THERE’S NO ONE IN THE WORLD WHO DESERVES LOVE MORE THAN YOU and YOU ARE BIGGER AND BETTER AND BRIGHTER THAN YOUR PROBLEMS. Or … they might just clutter up all your available vertical surfaces and make you feel shittier for never doing your affirmations.