Editor’s note: In our efforts to help, we might end up making things worse especially if we are uninformed on the nature of mental health struggles. Here Kean Loong shares his take on what not to say, and what to say instead.
When faced with someone who is depressed, what do you instinctively say to the sufferer?
There’re many messages of positivity out there which are fallacies and can make a mental health sufferer feel worse.
When interacting with someone who has mental health or mood disorders, speaking the truth is always more helpful than using clichéd or trite statements.
Here I wish to break down some common but unhelpful positivity messages that we like to offer to sufferers, and instead, give alternative statements that are more effective.
- “Leave your past behind.”
The past dictates who we are, almost always. Trying to forget our past only results in us burying our problems deeply, and hoping that they never surface or come back to haunt us in the future. When they do erupt, this is when mental health crises happen. Instead, help someone to accept their past, while living for the present.
- “Things will get better with time.”
Sometimes, it doesn’t. Sometimes over time, things get worse. Telling someone that it “will” get better is saying that you know the future. Saying that the person will eventually get better doesn’t help either, unless you have some authority in saying so. And if you’re speaking to someone who has lost a close one, please don’t say this. If the grief isn’t handled properly, nothing will ever get better. Instead, express your lack of ability to fully understand someone’s pain, and that you’re there with them. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
- “Ignore what others say.”
Think of someone you respect. Or someone you love. Does their opinion matter? Most of the time, it matters a lot. Telling someone to ignore what others say isn’t helpful. Instead, help them to recognise that they should instead be seeking the opinions of those who love and care for them, and are beneficial for them. Most of the other riff-raff can be ignored.
- “Think positive, and you’ll feel better.”
Someone in depression is medically incapable of thinking positive. Psychiatrists cannot agree on whether negative thoughts cause depression, or whether depression causes negative thoughts, but they all agree that once a sufferer has Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), commonly called depression, the mind can only focus on negative thoughts. Instead of saying this, consider one of two approaches: reminding the person of how much they are loved, or reminding them that depression causes negativity, and they need to be aware of it.
- “Don’t think so much.”
Some people think a lot. Some people think less. We’re all different. It is usually those who think more that are at higher risk of depression, but telling them not to think so much is like asking them to bite off their arm so that they will not risk having arm injuries. Instead, help to distract them. Talk about something totally unrelated, or engage them on an area of expertise that they have.
- “Surround yourself with more positive people.”
This one actually does make some sense. To prevent depression in an otherwise healthy person, this may be helpful, but if someone is already depressed, they may not even have energy to talk, much less be engaged in a social situation. Instead, ask the sufferer whether they wish to have you around, and if they do, be prepared to sit next to them in total quietness, or to talk when they feel like it. Be available and open.
To sum up, instead of offering positivity and trite messages of positivity, it is more helpful to simply be there, unjudging, and allowing the sufferer to know that you care. Most sufferers cannot shy away from objective truth, and by doing this, they are confronted with the fact that they are not alone. This allows the sufferer to feel safe, and to take in your positive truths at a pace that the sufferer is ready for.
An IT engineer turned mental health care advocate, Kean Loong is recovering from depression through writing and learning to care for others.