Not everyone is an expert in dealing with depression, though most Canadians will have to confront the disorder – either directly or indirectly – at some point in their lives. And while there’s no perfect script you can use to navigate the conversation, there are some things you just shouldn’t say to someone battling depression. We spoke to Nicole Coghlin, a registered therapist at Bayridge Counselling Centre and the director of Reach 4 Impossible, an organization that educates teenagers and their parents on anxiety and depression, to find out why. Here are 17 things that might actually do more harm than good.
1. “Maybe you’re just tired.”
While it’s very possible that the individual is tired (fatigue can be a symptom of depression), it is unlikely that one’s illness is due to drowsiness alone. Tiredness implies one could just sleep it off. But depression is not a hangover. While adequate sleep is irrefutably healthy, it is not a panacea. Coghlin suggests saying something more open-ended and less diagnostic: “I’ve noticed some differences in you. I’m wondering how you’re doing.”
2. “Are you on your period?”
Coghlin says she hears people ask this all the time, especially to women. While PMS is real (we have the hey-I’m-really-sorry-for-when-I-threatened-you-earlier sent messages to prove it), this question may come off as a criticism of the person’s physical functionality. That said, symptoms can be cyclical: “I find that many clients feel at their worst at the same time every day,” says Coghlin. “Perhaps, offer to call them during this time of day.”
3. “You know what always helps me? A pedicure.”
That’s probably because you’ve never been depressed. Unless you’ve discovered a sanity spa that scrubs away mental illness, a quick fix at the mall is not the solution. However, “trying to distract a depressed person with meaningful activity or exercise isn’t bad,” says Coghlin. “But you need to work around what their needs are.” A no-pressure invite is your best bet: “I could really use a pedicure, would you be interested in coming with me?”
4. “Have you considered yoga?”
Though useful for many, physical remedies don’t work for everyone. If a biweekly goddess pose helps you keep putting one foot in front of the other, that’s great. But yoga, like many forms of exercise, is not a viable solution for anyone with an injury, mobility issue or physical restriction. Also, some people (hi there!) are just not that into exercise. Coghlin suggests saying you’re on the hunt for a potential yoga co-conspirator, and to take plans from there should they seem interested.
5. “You should really try meditation.”
Just as physical methods don’t work across the board, the efficacy of meditation and the like depends on the individual. Coghlin points out that constantly inviting people to things you like, however well-intentioned, could undermine the challenges of interacting while depressed. “Some people’s depression is so severe that they can’t get out of bed,” she says. “They’re like, ‘If I could go out I would’. They don’t want to hear people say, ‘Oh, just do this’.”
6. “Are you still eating gluten? I gave it up last month. It helped me a lot.”
That’s great…for you. While a healthy diet can supplement therapy – fatty fish that’s high in omega-3s will strengthen brain power, and whole grains (carbs!) provide the glucose that serves as the primary source of energy – unless you’re a registered nutritionist, questioning someone’s diet is presumptuous. Instead, Coghlin suggests offering to have them over for dinner or to help them with errands that would ease the stress of their daily obligations.
7. “Maybe it’s because you haven’t been working/your sister just got married/Joe broke up with you.”
“People with depression often forget about their good qualities, gifts and skills,” says Coghlin. Instead of focusing on topics that may make someone feel insecure – or which may not have bothered them in the first place – reiterate why they rule: “Remind the person of their amazing qualities often,” says Coghlin. “The more you hear the same thing, the more it becomes your reality.”
8. “C’mon buddy, snap out of it!”
“Depression doesn’t go away overnight,” says Coghlin. “Suggesting that a person ‘snap out of it’ puts pressure on them to try and get rid of it fast, which can make anxiety worse.” A better option, says Coghlin, is to let the person know that you will be their pal for as long as it takes, for example: “When all this is over, I’ll still be here and so will you.”
9. “Why don’t we get a drink?”
News flash: Alcohol is a depressant; it will only make things worse. While a few drinks can seem to take the edge off, Coghlin says to be careful about drowning your sorrows with booze, however recreationally. Women, in particular, are prone to overdoing it when they’re feeling down. Heavy drinking can also reduce the effectiveness of antidepressants. Coghlin suggests proposing a non-alcoholic hang instead.
10. “There are a lot of depressed people out there. Celebrities even.”
“Other people being depressed, including celebrities, doesn’t make your depression any easier or make it go away,” says Coghlin. We get it: You want them to know they’re not alone, but it’s actually better to say just that, says Coghlin.
11. “I bet a prescription would clear this right up.”
Everyone has different feelings and expectations about antidepressants. “As with mental health in general, there is often a stigma toward mood medication,” says Coghlin. While they work really well for many, they don’t work for everyone. Leave this one to the professionals. A more balanced way to bring it up, says Coghlin, would be “Have you spoken to your doctor about how you’ve been feeling?”
12. “Honestly, you’re being kind of dramatic.”
Never say this. “Take their depression seriously instead of assuming you know what they’re going through,” says Coghlin. She suggests something less loaded and to remove your opinion from the equation, for example: “What kind of thoughts are you having? I’m a great listener if you would like to talk.”
It’s time we started talking openly about our mental health. Join the conversation on Bell Let’s Talk Day, January 25, and help end the stigma around mental illness. For every text message sent and mobile or long-distance call made by Bell Canada and Bell Aliant customers, Bell will donate five cents to Canadian mental health programs. The same goes for anyone sending a tweet using #BellLetsTalk, posting on Instagram using #BellLetsTalk, watching the Bell Let’s Talk video on Facebook, or sending a Snapchat using the Bell Let’s Talk geofilter. But talking about it is just the first step: Visit letstalk.bell.ca for more ways you can effect change and build awareness around mental health.
WATCH: How to be a friend when your friend is struggling with mental illness