This was the advice I received from a school counselor in college when I came to him because I was having trouble focusing through sporadic moods and I didn't know where to go. Fortunately, I knew a bad platitude when I heard one.
Just be happy? How was I going to do that exactly? The counselor had no ideas either.
I have heard a lot of "sage" advice concerning depression in the time since. Many of these foolish, inane remarks were made by kind people who thought they were helping. They weren’t.
Many trivialize another's experience with depression quite unintentionally. Often this is because they don't know what to say, so they throw a bumper sticker at the problem. Now, I like a good bumper sticker as well as the next guy — especially when they are on a bumper.
Here are a few of the things I heard first hand that shouldn‘t ever be attached to anyone’s bumper (not necessarily in order of their stupidity).
“What do you have to be depressed about?”
“Have you tried to stop feeling sorry for yourself?”
“There are a lot of people worse off than you.”
Does anyone really think these snippets of advice that slip through our collective lips are helpful? To anyone? "Think before you speak," is still a great adage to follow — in today's cyber world as well as the real one.
Hap, hap, happy your troubles away!
While Pollyanna could have gotten away with some of these remarks, they sound silly coming from an adult.
“It’s a beautiful day! What do you have to be depressed over?”
“Happiness is a choice, so choose to be happy!”
“Why don’t you smile more?”
A spoon full of sugar thrown at someone suffering depression is not the most delightful way — and doesn't help depression. Here are a few more that make me want to throw a few dishes:
“Try not being so depressed.” (Isn't this a doozy? This is almost as good as, “Just don’t think about it.”)
"A lot of people have it (depression) and they just find a way to get over it."
“Most folks are about as normal as they make up their minds to be.”
“Focus on something pleasant and don't wallow in it.”
“I always take a hot bath when I’m upset.” (What a water bill.)
advice-as-bumper-sticker happens when we think that all that's needed is a dose of reason and common sense. It usually sounds something like this:
“Have you gotten tired yet of all this focus-on-me stuff?”
“I didn‘t think you were that kind of person.”
“Aren’t you sick enough of feeling sorry for yourself that you want to do something about it?”
Expressing empathy is a step in the right direction. The comment“Believe me, I know how you feel. I was depressed once for several days,” is a little off the mark, but it’s obvious that the advice-giver is trying.
However, what I call the bad religious commentary is downright hurtful. Many spiritual thoughts and ideas are wonderfully insightful, but they were never meant to be used as a weapon.
“You would get better if you went to church.”
“Depression is a symptom of a greater sin.”
“Have you been reading your scriptures?”
And the debilitating, “If you had enough faith, then you would be healed.”
What people say can be offensive. The best game plan for a person who deals with depression is to realize that not everyone is going to say the right thing. Frankly, I started counting and recording the worst of the worst.
Once I am out of the emotion of the conversation, I often think that the insensitive comment made was downright funny. And, I wonder what the offender will feel once the reality of the statement sinks in.
Good things to say
I suppose there are many good things to say if someone chooses to trust you and opens up about his or her depression. (Which, by the way, is not simply an irrational sadness that affects a weak mind.)
At the top of the list would be, “Is there anything I can do to help?” Followed by, “You are not alone,” or, “I care about you and we will find a way through this.” These are helpful, caring ways to show support or to gently guide if needed.
And showing care or concern should be tops on your list of priorities when your friends and family are concerned.
Just speak from the heart — and leave the bumper stickers on the bumpers.