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Three simple tips for talking to a loved one with depression

A good friend taught me the concept that sometimes help isn't helpful.

Those strangers who condescendingly comment about the wild children flailing and screaming in your grocery cart: not helpful.

Those people who ask their depressed friends how they are doing but don’t want an honest response: not helpful.

I feel like I give my fellowmen a lot of grace. Everyone is doing the best they can with the tools they have, but occasionally there is room for improvement. Simple, yet sensitive conversation is one such area.

Those who struggle with mental illness (and other tough circumstances) have invariably experienced some version of this painful exchange:

Kind person with good intentions: How are you?

Depressed person: Umm…. (Should I really say how I’m doing? That might be too much information, but I could really use someone to talk to. What if I horrify this person with my true feelings? I should probably lie, say that I’m fine, and let them move on.)

Kind: Are you OK?

Depressed: Sorry, I’m fine. How are you?

Sound familiar? I conducted a little crowdsourcing research around this issue. Respondents offered three easy, truly helpful ways for kind people to help their mentally ill loved ones.

Tip #1: Here’s a twist on standard pleasantries. “We say, “How are you?” like a greeting. We should only ask that question when we are standing ready for answers that aren’t always trite and pleasant. If we just want to say a more personal hello, something like, “I’m so happy to see you!” is still sincere and supportive.” [Shanda]

Tip #2: Sometimes numbers simplify things. “I ask people how they are doing on a scale of 1 to 10 with 10 being the best they could ever be. I receive some real telling insights about how people are really feeling. Most people keep those sensitive, fragile parts of them protected with the cliché ‘How are you?’ question.” [Mark]

Tip #3: Acting is an important step. “Just DO something. Don't just forget about them because they withdraw from the world. Drop a candy bar on their doorstep with a “thinking about you” note. Offer to take over dinner occasionally. Send a heartfelt text or email. Drop off a potted plant or fresh flowers from time to time. Show that person that they're still loved and remembered.” [Candace]

These are simple tools! Everyone can learn new skills like these: Reframe a greeting. Ask for a numerical response. Do a little act of service.

My friend Maria explains that you can help even if you don’t understand your loved one’s illness. She illustrates, "You don’t have to experience mental illness yourself to seek to understand it. You don’t have to pretend to totally get it. Use empathic conversation like, 'That’s really hard.' Empathy is the key."

Empathy: the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.

Next time you’re tempted to ask, “How are you?” of a friend, remember that your goal is to seek understanding of your friend’s heart and situation. Let those feelings guide your questions, and then listen. This is the right kind of help.

I promise your friend will thank you.

photo credit: port st. lucie hospital

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