World Mental Health Day: Things someone with depression actually wants to be asked

It’s tough when a loved one is experiencing a mental health crisis, here are some ideas for what you can say to help.

October 10 marks World Mental Health Day. As a society, we’re getting better at talking about mental health, and as a result the stigmas around it are slowly breaking down.

However, there’s still a lot of work to be done, and days like this are necessary to stop and talk about our mental health. It’s not hard to find advice on what not to say to people struggling with depression – which of course is a good thing, as it educates us on casual phrases that could be potentially offensive or triggering. However, less is discussed about what you should say to someone with depression, and without it we run the risk of shutting down conversations altogether.

Mental health issues are multi-faceted, but for this we’re going to focus on depression, as the NHS says it affects about one in 10 people at some point during their life. We spoke to Jessica Baird, spokesperson from the Mental Health Foundation, about things to say to a friend or loved one suffering from depression…

Seek permission

So as not to take away the power from the person in question, Baird says: “It’s important to at least ask about their wishes and to seek permission. You could say: ‘I can see that things are hard for you right now – would it be OK if I sat with you for a while?’

“If you know the person well and they experience depression a lot, it’s worth sitting with them when they are well to talk about what they might need from you when times are hard.” Everyone’s needs are unique, so it will better equip you to know what to do next time.

It’s OK not to ask questions

It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of depression, which often results in us trying to ask a friend lots of questions to try and figure out what we can do and how we can help.

However, Baird says: “In the depths of depression, people often don’t know what they need or want, and/or don’t believe they deserve or are entitled to things anyway. That can make facing questions hard, because either you don’t know the answers, or you don’t feel you can be honest.

“Often, people who are depressed won’t want to be asked lots of  questions.”

Ask open questions

This doesn’t mean questions are off the table – just be selective with what you do ask. Baird suggests asking open questions so there’s not too much pressure on the answer.

“Questions that don’t result in a yes or no answer,” she explains. “Also – without treating the person like a child or patronising them – remember that complex language or too much detail can be hard to understand.”

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Ask them if they’re having suicidal thoughts

While not everyone with depression has suicidal thoughts, some do. Asking if your friend is having suicidal thoughts might seem like a scary thing to do, especially as it is still a relatively taboo subject. Baird says: “Asking about suicide does not encourage it, nor will it make the other person start thinking about it. In fact, by asking you may be starting a potentially life-saving conversation.” If they are expressing these thoughts, Baird adds: “Assure your loved one that, with help, their suicidal feelings will pass with time.”

Even if you’re not asking them directly about suicide, you can still be there for them. “Try to remember that talking with them and showing you care may make all the difference,” Baird advises.

“Watch out for signs of distress or uncharacteristic behaviour, such as withdrawing from other people, being very quiet or irritable, having uncharacteristic outbursts or talking about death or suicide.”

Encourage them to talk to others

Unless you’re a trained medical professional, it can be tough to know how to talk to a loved one with depression. That’s why Baird says: “Encourage your loved one to seek help from a GP or health professional.”

It’s also important you take care of yourself as well – “Take time to look after yourself and consider seeking support.”

She suggests contacting Samaritans (24 hours a day 116 123), CALM or Papyrus if you or a loved one are struggling with these issues. You can find more sources of support here and more information for supporting a partner with depression here.