It can feel vulnerable to talk about depression. Even though it’s a common mental health disorder, it can be difficult to start a conversation. You might be afraid you’ll say the “wrong” thing or push your loved one away.
Your response matters. Getting the support of family or friends can make a critical difference in a person’s experience with depression. You’re not their therapist, but remember that doesn’t mean your role isn’t important to their recovery.
Using these tips will prepare you to better connect with your loved one.
What is Depression
Before diving into the skills, it’s important to understand a little about depression and its impact. This includes understanding what depression is and what it is not.
Depression is a mood disorder, not a choice. It’s a common misconception that depression only means being sad all the time. However, there are different types of depression. Some people experience intense negative moods. Other people experience an empty, numbing kind of depression. Some people will experience both at different times. Most people with severe depression feel hopeless and unable to do anything useful. You may also notice changes in sleep patterns. Some people stay in bed for long periods of time or are unable to fall asleep.
Your loved one might not seem like themselves. The severity of symptoms and how long they last vary from person to person.
How Depression Makes it Harder to Connect
People dealing with depression often feel ignored, diminished, or outright dismissed. It may not matter if you’ve actually “dismissed” them or not. Depression changes how we perceive the world. With depression, almost anything can be perceived negatively.
It’s typical for people with depression to withdraw when their symptoms and moods worsen. They might end up in a cycle of loneliness and isolate themselves from family and friends. Yet, every person needs to feel seen and heard.
Because of depression, many people lose the feeling that anyone is willing to see or hear them. Even if you’ve been a go-to person to talk to in the past, you may not be the person your loved one wants to talk to about their depression. That’s okay. Regardless of your role in their recovery, the following strategies will help you talk to your loved one.
Listen Before You Talk
Most people skip this step. It's easy to become fixated on your own goals for a conversation. When listening, there is only one goal: to understand what the other person is sharing about their experience. This type of listening is called active listening. It is taught to parents, mental health professionals, and even expert negotiators. Active Listening is so popular because it works!
Active Listening requires letting go of judgment and assumptions. Only your loved one knows what it’s like to live with their depression. Give them the space to share. Don’t be afraid to acknowledge that you are hearing them say negative things. You don’t need to agree with them to show that you’re hearing their experience.
Practice Actively Listening Before You Talk
Start by asking your loved one how they’re feeling, or another question you’d use to check-in. Try to reflect back, paraphrase, or summarize what they’ve shared with you.
It can be hard to stay focused on your loved one instead of your own thoughts. If you find yourself unable to share back anything in your own words: pause, take a deep breath, and try again.
By focusing on listening and sharing back what you heard, you can help them start to feel seen and heard. Letting go of the need to give advice can have benefits for you, too. When you see your role as a supporter rather than a fixer, it can help take a burden off your shoulders. Silence and nonverbals can often be just as effective as sharing back.
Find the Feeling
Empathy is a hot-button word these days, and for good reason. It’s the skill that allows us to connect with others on an emotional level. If you’ve never experienced depression, it can be hard to imagine what your loved one is feeling.
Depression isn’t a singular experience. Everyone with depression has different moods, triggers, and symptoms. When we empathize with loved ones, we focus on catching the feelings they express. Our focus on feelings allows us to hear what other people often ignore.
Naming emotions can be difficult for anyone. It takes practice to understand what emotion someone is feeling based on what they share. You might be wrong. That’s ok! The important thing is that you are able to leave space for them to correct you.
Even though we may have different feelings about a situation than our loved ones, we want to imagine ourselves in their shoes and recognize their feelings are real.
Practice Empathy by Finding the Feeling
After listening, try to describe their experience using a feeling word, and ask them if you’re on the right track.
For example, if your loved one mentions a new treatment, you might pick up on them feeling nervous or uncertain. If they express nothing is going their way, you might note they’re feeling defeated or overwhelmed. Use questions like “is that how you feel?” or “did I get that right?” to show you’re guessing and that you want to know more.
Common feelings of people experiencing depression include: defeat, hopelessness, sadness, numbness, emptiness, anger, frustration, irritation, feeling overwhelmed, and loneliness. However, your loved one can be feeling something completely different. The goal is to get as close to what they describe as possible. More than anything, you want to reduce how lonely your loved one feels in their experience.
Talk About Things Not Related to Depression
Not every conversation is a feelings conversation. While every person is different, recovery from depression can be a long road. Many people experience symptoms for months or years at a time. Part of your job is to connect about things outside of your loved one’s depression. Not every conversation can or should be about feelings of depression.
Practice Talking About (or Doing) Things Not Related to Depression
Do small things together and have light conversations. Continue to offer small options to help and connect, even if you feel like you’re being told “no” a lot of the time. You can even ask to sit and read a book in the same room as them to add some comfort. Practice just being around.
Let Go of Perfection
You might say the wrong thing. We all do. When we listen or empathize, we're trying our best to understand, knowing we won’t ever get everything perfectly. You likely won’t always have the energy to catch and respond to the emotion your loved one is feeling. That’s totally normal and okay.
Your loved one might say they’re angry, numb, or burst into tears. They might not say much at all. Having these conversations may be uncomfortable. Being willing to have conversations at all shows you do care and are willing to support them.
Sometimes a conversation can go in a direction you weren’t expecting. You may feel overwhelmed and not know what to do. Remember that it’s always an option to admit that you don’t know what to say.
Practice Letting Go of Perfection By Saying You Don’t Know
Tell your loved one when you're feeling unsure. It’s surprisingly effective to ask them for help in the process. Consider saying something like “how can I be the best support for you in this moment?”
It’s also okay not to ask a question and to simply leave it open. Try a statement like "I don't really know how to be helpful right now. I wish I did."
Get More Support
When talking to your loved one about their depression, you also might hear something you don’t want to hear. Your loved one could share that they’re having thoughts of suicide, or that they feel hopeless. Research shows that talking about suicide is more likely to reduce risk than increase it.
So, it’s ok to talk about suicide. Share that you feel proud of them for sharing these thoughts or grateful that they trust you to talk about this. It shows great strength when someone is willing to share these thoughts with others. Don’t be afraid to keep listening and reflecting.
If the conversation goes beyond something you can handle, know that you can connect with resources to get more support.
Practice Getting More Support
You can use a response like “I’m sorry, but I just don’t know how to help you on my own. I need advice. Can we call your therapist or a crisis hotline together?” Focusing on yourself and your own needs for more support shows vulnerability and can help avoid conflict or accusations.
The national suicide prevention hotline is now available at the national number 988 to talk to a counselor immediately.
It can be hard for family and friends to hear how a loved one is feeling numb or helpless. That’s why it’s important to remember to take a step back and listen to your own needs as well.
A Few Bonus Tips
Put Away Distractions
Show your loved one you are listening by putting away any distractions (goodbye, phone!) and giving them your attention. Putting away distractions shows them they are the most important thing to you in the moment.
Use Nonverbal Cues
Most communication is nonverbal. If possible, make eye contact when talking about challenging experiences and emotions. Movements like head nods and a touch on the shoulder can show reassurance. Communicating by what you do is at least as important as what you say.
Avoid Toxic Positivity
Forcing someone to look on the “bright side” can make it feel like you’re minimizing their experience. Expressing positive emotions about tangible progress works better, no matter how small. When you can point to the behavior you’re grateful to see, they’re more likely to believe you and accept what you shared as true.
Took the trash out? Drank chamomile tea before sleep? Showered? Read a fun book for a little bit? Each of these examples is a positive step depression can make us discount or discard. They are also the tiny steps that can build to change the path of depression for the better.
Don’t Minimize Their Experience
Because “depression” is used to describe a common emotional state, it can lead people to believe that depression isn’t so bad. Or that the feeling is fleeting like with other emotions. That’s not the case with people with ongoing symptoms of depression. It’s not something they can “snap out of”. Like any other medical condition, you can’t simply wish it away. Treating it that way can make your loved one feel even more misunderstood.
We all have an impulse to give advice or problem-solve. Even on our best days, it’s hard to stop ourselves from giving advice and making assumptions. Whether we intend it to or not, our expectations seep in. Instead, listen non-judgmentally.
Offer to Help When They are Ready for More Support
Making the decision to seek treatment can be huge but also draining. You can be an important navigator to help find the right care if your loved one wants to talk to a therapist or access other mental health resources. Depression interferes with someone's basic motivation and concentration skills. The barriers of navigating insurance, finding the right option, and booking appointments can be overwhelming. Keep your patience with this process and help when you can. Try not to take it personally if the first attempts to start treatment are unsuccessful.
Practice Your Own Self-care
When you listen, empathize, and have hard conversations it is draining on your body and mind. You have to put on your oxygen mask first. Make space to take care of your needs and replenish your energy.
Not sure where to start? Give yourself some space after any challenging conversations with your loved one to take a self-compassion break.
These tips will help you build enough trust to eventually tackle harder conversations. Listening might seem basic, but it’s shockingly rare. It also can be challenging, especially when a loved one expresses feelings about situations that we disagree with. Being able to express back what your loved one is experiencing shows that you really care.
Common reasons people want to talk to a loved one with depression are to convince them to seek treatment. Or they're worried that they’re suicidal. It’s harder to have success with these kinds of conversations if you haven’t built the foundation of easier conversations first.
You can use these same tips to talk to a loved one if you’re worried they’ll hurt themselves or if you want to encourage them to seek treatment. Listening, empathizing, and understanding are the keys to supportive communication throughout their journey with depression.
It can feel emotionally exhausting to support a person experiencing severe depression. However, people living well with serious mental illness often share that knowing that their supporters were solid and there for them through it all made a huge difference. This is true even when they were unable to accept help or even communicate with loved ones.
Come Practice With Us
At Akin Mental Health, we offer weekly communication skills workshops where you can practice skills like active listening and showing empathy in a safe space. These communication skills are just like muscles that improve with use. Sign up here to learn more.