It can be hard to know what to say to someone when they confide in you about their mental health problems – even as someone who lives with my own issues I sometimes need to pull myself up from saying something that could be hurtful instead of helpful. I hope it would be obvious to others that any insensitivity on my part would be unintentional and without malice, but when someone is in the grip of depression or anxiety it can be hard to understand and feel that – certainly I have been guilty of taking a well meaning but thoughtless comment deeply to heart and being greatly hurt by it.
I like to hope that as time as gone on I have become more accepting and less hasty when making replies to those who choose to confide in me. Here are a few suggestions on what to say, and what NOT to say, and my personal reasoning on why based on personal experience.
What to say: I don’t know what to say, but can I give you a hug? Is there anything I could do to help you other than being here to listen?
What NOT to say: I don’t understand what it is you’re so upset about. You just need to start being more positive.
Why: Judgement is not going to help. Maybe the depression is talking and the person sounds unreasonable to you, but to them the feelings are real and deep. The nature of their illness means they can not think in the logical and positive way you may be able to – the kindest thing you can do for them is to just listen.
What to say: I know it is really hard to it believe right now, but things will get better. I can’t tell you when that will happen, but I will do my best to be here for you. Don’t give up!
What NOT to say: You need to snap out of it, things aren’t that bad! There are millions of people out there that have it worse than you do.
Why: Things are that bad, to them, they are THAT bad. In fact, it is likely your friend is only confiding a small amount of how bad things feel to them – assure them that things will get better, but don’t expect them to believe it right now. Do your best to just be present and remind them that there are those who care for them and want them to keep going.
What to say: I understand you are feeling lonely, but you are not alone. I am here for you.
What NOT to say: You have so many friends, what do you mean you are lonely? You’re so ungrateful!
Why: Loneliness doesn’t always mean that someone is alone, those who are struggling with mental health issues often report feelings of loneliness. It is hard to feel connected to others when your illness makes you feel unlovable – they could have 100 friends and still feel lonely. Recognise that it is not about you or anything you have done wrong, it is about how they feel about themselves that is making them feel this way.
Personally I know that I have often let people down by replying without deep thought in the past. I’ve used the “you need to think positively” line, and I’ve wondered how someone who seems to be popular can say they are lonely when they obviously are surrounded by people who care. I feel a lot of guilt for that and hope that those people know that I was well intentioned at the time.
I also know the pain it caused me when I let others in and had them tell me that “it could be worse”. The thing is, they had no idea what had gone on in my past, nor the things that were happening that led me to break down, and that is the lesson for us all, myself included – we rarely know what is happening to another person enough to judge their feelings.
Every person is entitled to feel their feelings the way they feel them (how is that for a tongue twister?) – all we can do is our best to be there for each other, to love each other, to support one another, and to somehow muddle through.