'But why don’t you just cheer up?' and other things not to say to someone with depression

The stigma over mental health is never going to go away unless people start talking about their struggles openly and candidly. So I will

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The Independent Online

For the longest time I’ve found the idea that there could be stigma attached to mental illness rather difficult to grasp. And yet here we are. Sufferers of depression, like me, find it almost impossible to start the conversation they need to have about their struggles with friends, family, employers, and their own GPs, even though one in four of us will experience some kind of mental health problem in the course of the year.

But today is #timetotalk day, designed to get people to talk about their experiences with mental health. At the moment, people don’t want to talk about their struggles because they are afraid of the stigma. But the stigma is never going to go away unless people start talking about their mental health openly and candidly. So I will.

For those of you who are lucky enough to not have suffered from depression, imagine you are in a lift that travels up and down through various moods. Well, depression is like plummeting five floors below sadness. It is so much worse than just “feeling a bit down”. When I’m at my worst, I don’t really feel much at all. I’m devoid of feeling; I struggle to muster up any feelings towards anything, I just don’t care. It’s not sadness, it’s crippling numbness. I don’t want to leave the house, I don’t want to eat, I don’t want to do anything but lie in the dark and be in the dark and not think anything. It makes me feel ashamed and broken, and question what is so wrong with me that I can’t even manage to feel happy.

And yes, it’s hard to talk about. I’ve been suffering since I was 16, and over the last five years have built up a great support network of people I can talk to – I now know I have people I can share even my worst thoughts with, and that helps.

But if you don’t have that network, if you don’t have people who understand, then it can feel like you are stuck in an isolated cave. If you’re brave, you may work up the courage to tell someone how you feel. Often, they’ll slightly cock their head to the side, as if to say “What do you have to be depressed about?, and then you retreat back into your embarrassment and don’t talk about it again. Instead, you internalise your feelings so they eat you up, until you can’t do it anymore. This stops you getting the help and attention that you need.

So we need to create safe spaces for sufferers to be able to tell their stories without fear. This is how we are going to start challenging the dangerous stereotypes that surround mental health, and giving the right help to the people that need it.

What are the right and wrong things to say to someone who is suffering? Here’s a quick guide to what I find helpful.


Why are you depressed? You have nothing to be depressed about!

Depression isn't about being upset about a ‘thing’, but about having an illness which makes you feel a certain way. People often use the comparison of diabetes: you’d never ask someone why they have diabetes, you just accept that they have it. Because it’s an illness. Well, mental illness is the same.

But why don’t you just cheer up?

Because it’s not a choice. I’m not choosing to feel this way. I just feel it. Like the flu.

Why don’t you try exercise? That’s meant to help

I barely want to get out of bed and shower, so why you think I’d want to put on lycra and hurtle down the street is beyond me.


Do you want to talk about it?

This is good – it doesn’t put pressure on the person to talk about it if they don’t want to, but let’s them know you’re there.

Is there anything I can do to help? 

Rather than presuming to know the right thing to help someone (see: 'try exercise!' above), why not just ask them what they need?

Would you like to hang out and do something low-key, no pressure?

While it may seem like the right thing to say: “Hey, let’s go out on the town where all the people are so you can be in public where it’s loud!” this can often be scary, and the last thing someone with depression will want.

Just let them know you’re there

Sometimes it’s just as important to know that there is someone there if you need them. It feels like a safety net. Sometimes depressed people want to be alone and not talk to people for a while, but it makes life a lot better and easier to know that if you do need someone they are just a text away.