For the last six months, I have felt honored to play but a small part in working to#stopthestigma surrounding mental illness. And even though it has taken me 16 years to speak about my own struggles with depression, I know my words have the power to help others, and that, in turn, has helped me.
That said, even though awareness is at an all-time high, it is not easy for most of us with depression to speak about our illness—sometimes due to shame and other times because we simply do not know what to say.
Me: I’m so sad/angry/out of it today.
Friend/Family Member: Why?
Me: I don’t know.
Friend/Family Member: What can I do?
Me: I don’t know.
I get it. I understand why we are reluctant to share our struggles, and I understand why our disease frustrates those around us. There isn’t a blood test that can gauge our moods or any kind of scan that can reveal the effectiveness of our treatment. We simply live in the moment, not knowing where the next might take us—and with no warning when the next wave of depression may finally peak and break.
I am not a mental health professional, but what I can tell you is that many of us know what we don’t like to hear. We know what makes us want to scream and cry and karate kick people (“It’s okay. Everyone gets depressed,” and, “Oh, but you have so much going for you,” are at the top of my list). We cringe and wonder how people can be so ignorant. Sometimes we wonder how people can be so insensitive. But we don’t ask for what we do need—we only express that which we do not.
I, too, am guilty of this. Why? Because there is no magic thing you can say to make someone feel better or “snap out of it.” There is nothing you can do to fix or cure me, or anyone else in the grip of a depressive episode. But—and this is a big but here—that doesn’t mean there aren’t things you can say or do to assist someone who is suffering. And that is all our loved ones want to do: to help. To help in any way they can.
I know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing depression, but I can speak from my own experiences. So here are the five things I have found most helpful to hear when suffering from my own depression:
1. You are not alone. You don’t need to explain or compare or try to relate, especially if you can’t. You can just reassure the sufferer that many others struggle with depression and support is closer than they think. However, do not force therapy or medication or compare us to them. We just need to know we are not alone; we can put the pieces together ourselves.
2. I’m here for you. This is a no strings attached, judgment-free offer—and that is very, VERY important. Know that if you say this you may hear things you don’t want to, and you may discuss topics you are not comfortable with (disordered behaviors, suicidal thoughts, intentions or plans). Please do not make this offer if it is something you are ill-prepared for because 1) if you decide you can no longer listen or are incapable of listening based on the subject matter, it can do irrevocable damage to the sufferer; and 2) you may hear something that will require action (so know what the next steps may in fact be).
3. Do you want a hug/food/me to sit with you? If you’ve been interacting with someone struggling from depression for any length of time, you probably already knownot to tell us how awesome our lives are—not to remind us about our great jobs, beautiful families or excessive wealth (though, admittedly, I could use a bit of the latter). Why? Because it doesn’t matter. What does matter are the little things. While we often don’t know what we need or want, sometimes it is the little offers that make the biggest difference: a hug, an encouraging text (hell, even a funny sound bite involving farts, or whatever type of humor you prefer) or sitting in silence. Don’t underestimate the power of this step—or its importance.
4. I love you/I care about you. Say it if you mean it. ‘Nuff said.
5. I know I don’t understand what you’re feeling, but I love you all the same and I will help in whatever way I can. This one is a doozy. If you do not suffer from depression, please do not say you know what we are feeling. You don’t, plain and simple. But just because you cannot relate does not mean you cannot empathize, and sometimes empathy and compassion are the only thing that can take the edge off a very dark day. And since many of those who suffer from depression also think in extremes, or have an all-or-nothing mentality (say, for example, there is no light at the end of the tunnel because the tunnel just doesn’t fucking end), your simple gesture may turn out to be the light we were looking for all along.
To learn more about depression, visit the National Institute of Mental Health website.
©2015 Kimberly Zapata, as first published on Club Mid