We all hate to see the people we love in pain, and when someone we care about is suffering with depression, we want to help. We want to take their pain away, we want to make it go away. But telling someone who is depressed to simply “cheer up,” while no doubt well-intentioned, is not helpful. In fact, it is harmful, offensive, and damaging.
People living with depression literally cannot decide to feel happier and have it happen, no matter how much they long to feel differently or how much effort they put into battling their sadness. Depression isn’t something someone can just “snap out of.”
Depression can keep you in bed for days, robbing you of the will to get dressed, eat or take care of your kids. Depression can shame you into believing you’re somehow responsible for your deep, unwavering sadness and that if you were a better, stronger person, you’d be able to pull yourself out of it. Depression can manifest as anger and anxiety, making it difficult to maintain healthy relationships.
When, as a new mom, I realized I suffered from depression, the lack of control over my anger and sadness felt scary and isolating. Day-to-day tasks, like dropping off my daughter at preschool or picking up milk, overwhelmed me. Making meals felt like a Herculean task. Talking on the phone felt like being interrogated and I eventually stopped answering calls. I forced myself to smile around my children so they wouldn’t wonder what was wrong with me because I didn’t want them to feel responsible for my depression.
Every once in a while, I’d let people see my sadness. They’d try to help, saying things like “it’s not that bad,” and “we all have hard days.” Their words only made me feel like my emotions were unfounded. I wondered if my despair was a figment of my imagination. Then one day I just burst into tears while talking to a close friend. She held my hands and said, “You are so, so sad.” That clear acknowledgement felt like a warm blanket. She didn’t try to fix me or chase away my sadness. She simply validated my feelings – and that was exactly what I needed.
This kind of support is not easy to give. Our natural instinct is to make it sadness and pain go away. We might tell a ridiculous joke or point out all the wonderful truths about our friend’s life in an effort to focus on the positive. We think this will lift our depressed person out of the dumps. Research shows, however, that this sort of positive reframing can actually have the opposite effect. Instead of making people feel better, telling them to “cheer up” makes them feel worse. Furthermore, these types of interactions negatively impact the relationship between the giver and receiver. Receivers feel unsupported and misunderstood, and givers feel badly they were unable to adequately help.
Sadness makes us uncomfortable. We want everyone to be happy and cheery, especially this time of year. There’s nothing wrong with wanting the people we love to be happy, but it’s not always in our power to make that a reality, especially when that person suffers from depression. Encouraging them to look on the bright side or think happier thoughts isn’t going to do the trick.
It may seem counterintuitive, but validating a friend’s sad or negative feelings is actually better than swiping them away with a smile and promise that things will get better. Depression is a mood disorder that affects more than 16 million adults in the United States. It is not a controllable emotional state. Telling someone to cheer up or focus on gratitude or go for a run dismisses their feelings as easily solvable if they just put a little effort into it. It also implies that they are responsible for their depression, that somehow if they do things differently, their negative feelings will disappear.
People with depression are trying every damn day to overcome that depression. They do not want to feel sad. It is not a choice. It’s the way their brains are wired and they are doing their best to manage their debilitating emotions, whether with medication or therapy or both.
A depressed person literally cannot cheer up, which can make them feel like a failure. When their mood doesn’t improve, you might also feel like a failure for not being able to help them. So what can you do to support someone who’s depressed? Acknowledge and validate their feelings. Say something straightforward, like, “I’m so sorry. That sounds really hard.” Let them know you love them and that they can lean on you. Check in on them: call, text or leave a message. Knowing someone cares makes an enormous difference to a person living with depression, even if they can’t respond.
Overcoming the urge to make everything sunny and bright might be out of our comfort zone, but when it comes to truly supporting those suffering from depression, witnessing and validating their difficult feelings is the best way to help.