5 Things Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Last week, Hyundai had to yank and apologize for a commercial depicting a man attempting suicide in his garage, but failing because his new car was zero-emissions. The ad sparked serious backlash, in large part due to the fact that depictions of suicide can lead to copycat suicides, according to experts. Also, of course, because it was just a terrible, tasteless, thoughtless idea for a commercial.

The angry reactions against the commercial reveal that, to most people, suicide and depression are no laughing matter (although, treated right, sadness can be great fodder for comedy. See: Tig Notaro). Depression is incredibly prevalent in this country — it affects more than 21 million Americans annually and, among individuals ages 15 to 44, is the leading cause of disability. It also affects the American economy a surprising, even staggering amount, accounting for more than $31 billion in lost productive time each year. It is also, according to Mental Health America, the main cause of 30,000 deaths by suicide each year.

And yet, as prevalent as this disorder is in America, we still lack the vocabulary to talk about it. There are various stigmas attached to depression and numerous misconceptions about it, and non-depressed people have a hard time relating to and even talking to depressed people in a way that is supportive, rather than patronizing or accusatory. With that in mind, here are five things you shouldn’t say to a depressed person.

1. “You’re just not trying hard enough. You could get over it.”

Oh, am I also not “trying hard enough” to “get over” heart disease, cancer, or chronic pain, three conditions that often co-occur with depression? We don’t talk to people with these types of diseases as if they’re just weak-willed ninnies. Why do we talk to depressed people, who are suffering from another serious, often debilitating condition, this way? Do we think it’s helpful, a way to prod a depressed person into trying harder? Well, it’s not. It’s offensive and hurtful. Believe me: Depressed people are trying not to be depressed just as much as cancer victims are trying not to have cancer. It’s not that simple.

2. “Nothing that bad has ever happened to you.”

First of all, as they say on reality television, “Girl, you don’t know my life.” How do you know nothing bad has happened to me? Secondly, this is a little like saying, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?” While depression often occurs as the result of a traumatic incident, like the death of a family member, the insidious thing about it is that it can occur all on its own. And newsflash: Having depression counts as something bad happening to you. Lots of people don’t seem to think depression “counts” unless it is tied to a specific source of grief. Again, this is a misconception, and it’s beyond rude to dismiss someone’s struggle if his or her narrative doesn’t fit what you think depression should look like.

3. “I don’t believe in medication.”

OK. It’s not the tooth fairy. You might have opinions about the over-diagnosis and over-medication of society (it’s definitely an issue worth exploring) but psychopharmacology is a real science, and psychiatric medications have proven and real efficacy. And if a qualified psychiatrist is going to thoughtfully prescribe a pill or combination of pills that’s going to keep someone from devastating everyone they know by attempting or worse, completing suicide, then you know what? I’m OK with that. And you should be, too.

4. “Have you ever tried to kill yourself?”

This is not the same as asking, “Oh, you speak French? Have you ever been to Paris?” For one thing, it’s just obnoxious to ask such a personal question. Unless someone voluntarily talks about something as painful and person as a suicide attempt, the plain old polite thing to do is not to bring it up. But it’s also worth knowing that talking of suicide can be a huge trigger for a person who has or has had suicidal ideation or attempts, similar to the way talking about sexual assault can be a huge trigger for a rape victim. If someone does bring up a suicide attempt, listen and be thoughtful, present, and empathetic, but don’t think it’s your business to ask.

5. “You know, there are people with real problems.”

Depression is a real problem, and it’s not just a first-world problem, either. It’s the top cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. More than 350 million people in the world suffer from it, and the WHO calls it “a major contributor to the global burden of disease.” Yes, there are other problems to think about in the world. I have heard of war and famine, thanks very much. But assuming that depression is not a legitimate problem to have is not just cruel; it’s ignorant of a global crisis.

You know what you can say to depressed people? It’s not that hard, actually. Things like, “I love you,” or “I’m here for you” will do the trick. Basically, just showing an ounce of kindness and decency can go a long way in the life of a person suffering from depression.