talking to a depressed person
Mental & Emotional Health

Five Things to Never Say to Someone with Depression

In hopes of helping those experiencing depression, we can unintentionally actually make things worse. In my latest book “When Someone You Know Has Depression: Words to Say and Things to Do” (Johns Hopkins Press, June 1, 2016), I give advice for loved ones who have depression or bipolar disorder, including what to say, how to encourage and how to facilitate resilience.

Family members and close friends are often the first to recognize the subtle changes of depression, and need to know what to say or do to cope with the person’s impaired thinking.

Relationships with a spouse, significant other, or family member can be very tricky to handle, especially if one or both of the persons is under stress or going through an emotional problem like depression or an otherwise tough time.
We need to avoid these five common phrases we might accidentally say to someone with depression that can have a negative effect:

1. “Happiness is a choice.” For those who are depressed, happiness is not a choice, and to be told so is frustrating.
2. “You have so many things to be thankful for, why are you depressed!” Instead, when a depressed person brings up negative thoughts, it is helpful to gently challenge these thoughts by having them list “evidence for” and “evidence against” the thoughts. This will help them find more evidence against the negative thought and realize the error of their thinking.
3. “There is always somebody worse off than you are.” Imposing guilt on someone who is depressed is just adding more symptoms to their already heavy burden.
4. “Just don’t think about it.” This is easier said than done, and someone who is not or has not gone through similar situations can’t expect there to be an on and off switch.
5. “You need to get a hobby.” Depression may have led the person to lose interest in previous hobbies. It is helpful to try to engage them in the activities they once enjoyed, but in small steps at a pace they can handle. They may not feel interested in the activity at first, but once they begin to do it again the drive to do the activity more will follow.

Dr. Susan Noonan is a medical doctor and part time certified peer specialist at McLean Hospital, the largest psychiatric affiliate of Harvard Medical School, where she advises staff and faculty and teaches residents and medical students about depression and recovery. Dr. Noonan is also a consultant to Massachusetts General Hospital. She is the author of “Managing Your Depression, What You Can Do to Feel Better” (Johns Hopkins Press, May 2013). Dr. Noonan graduated with a Bachelor of Arts from Mount Holyoke College, where she was the recipient of the Abbey Howe Turner Award for excellence in biology. She earned her Doctor of Medicine degree from the Tufts University School of Medicine and a master’s degree in public health from the Harvard University School of Public Health, with a concentration in quality of care. She lives in Wellesley, Mass. For more information, please visit

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