Communicating with Sufferers of Depression (Depressives?)

Key Points:

  • Mindset

I’ll talk about mindset first because it finds itself caught up in all of the following points I am going to make. When we think about what we are aiming for, we must consider our mindset at the time as well as their own, when we are trying to talk to a sufferer of depression, we must think about our mindset as well as our own – what are we trying to say, how are we saying it and what attitude do we have when we say what we want to say?

When people talk about about depression they talk about it as an illness, it is a disease, something that is unseemly and unattractive, it is something that has to be fixed, and though a great deal of this is true, terms like ‘disease’ and ‘illness’ have very negative connotations when applied to a persons mindset. When we are physically ill we find that we can isolate the illness – it is something physical, it can be ‘detached’ (in a sense) from us, from our personality. A physical illness can, of course, restrict our movement, or make us uncomfortable, or even affect our mental well being – but we can still say that something happened that caused ‘this’, or that between this and this time I had this, and it affected me thus.

We can say this about depression in small doses. We can say so-and-so broke up with me during these dates, and during these dates I became depressed. But for those who have lived with depression all their lives, and no nothing else, then what can be said? They cannot say ‘oh it must have been between here-and-here’, they do not know of a time before or after depression – because they have been within it. To them, depression is how they think, how they feel and how they navigate/navigated the world around them.

Saying ‘you’re ill’ to someone who has depression, or who is in the early stages of realising that they have depression, is to potentially put into doubt everything that person has felt,  everything that person may have thought, and the way they have chosen to navigate around the world. If they are a vegetarian, they may start to think ‘was I a vegetarian just because I was depressed? […] if I didn’t suffer from depression, then would I eat meat?’ depending on what they value, telling a depressive that they are ill has the potential to unsettle their whole sense of self – if they have grown up with an ‘ill’ mind, with a ‘diseased’ mentality, then they may feel that the conclusions they have come too may be founded on that which is untrue; on the very illness itself.

When we want to open up communication, when we want to talk about the issue without starting a fight or get a negative response, then we must appeal to them as a person rather than to someone that is ill. We should put ourselves in their shoes before we open our mouths, think about how our words would make us feel if we were in their position; as if a rug had been pulled from beneath our feet, as if we were in a state of un-grounding.

Being ‘ill’ also implies normalcy, and that there is a normal mental state (which is far from the truth; there is no normal, just what is ‘common’) that we should be in. I remember getting told off by the doctor I was seeing because I kept saying that I was ‘far from normal’, that I wanted to feel ‘like a normal person’ (just think ‘Common People’ by Pulp – but with normal instead of common), she told me there was no such thing as normal – and that I was silly to think there was such a thing.

  • Talking

Talking is incredibly important – I can’t emphasise talking enough, which is why it comes after mindset (because you have to talk in the right way, being bitter, vague, or acting insensitively will destroy even the possibility of talking). I know that when I am in one of my foul moods I often want to talk to someone so as to relieve pressure from myself, and often these little talks don’t seem to concern much (it may be that someone shouted at me whilst I was walking down the road at a sensitive time, or that I forgot something on the way to uni) but to me they feel like a lot. Depressives have a tendency to make things worse than they are, or to read into things that which is not there, but talking through it with someone can really help to bring the issue down to a more suitable level.

For the listener the event may seem incredibly mundane, it may seem like the tiniest thing, as if the other person were joking around, but usually there is a great deal more behind this small thing – dropping a sandwich in the park or being called a c**t by a passerby is simply the point where it all came crashing down; it was the ‘I’ve had enough, I want to cry’ point. To the keen observer this can be evident within seconds, you may be thinking ‘why is this person so upset about a sandwich? Surely something else is going on here…’ and you’d be right, but you mustn’t get impatient and try to push the story on – there is a cathartic nature to the telling itself.

Don’t get impatient, and don’t write off their experience as if it were nothing – comfort them, ask them if they are okay, do they want something to drink? When they struggle on a piece of information throw in some helpful suggestions – ‘do you mean the road by such-and-such? […] was it at that point that you decided to come here? […] did anything happen after that?’ Make it look like you are listening; eye contact, supportive movements, try to avoid interrupting them when they are in the middle of something, if you can’t imagine how they felt at the time then at least show that you are trying to imagine how it feels – ask for clarification, maybe.

By making this comfortable talky-space you create a trusting environment for the person who is speaking – they no longer feel like their words are falling on deaf ears, and that you are really listening (and you should be listening, too), if they start to doubt it and say things like ‘I’m sorry, I must be boring you, it’s such a stupid story’ say no, maybe admit that you are struggling to follow it a little, but if its ‘made you upset it is important’. Reinforce the fact that you are listening, and be sympathetic – if they start talking in loops then tell them delicately that they’ve already talked about such-and-such before, or that such-and-such has been covered.

When they’ve finished talking about what they wanted to talk about, then maybe a share a story of your own about a similar thing, or ask a few questions about how they felt, and why they felt like they felt, was there anything else going on at the time – its all about a space for open trusting discussion; they may not open up to you loads at first, and if they don’t then just kick back and wait – if the conversation has been a comfortable one then when they feel comfortable enough, or when they have realised something else then they will be happy to tell you what that thing was.

This is not to say that you can’t nudge them a little at the end. Ask them what they think the problem was, maybe, or what they’d do to avoid it happening again – but avoid the idea of being ill, or of right and wrong thinking, sympathise with their feelings and try to help them through any knots they seem to encounter – don’t dive ahead of them, just try to tease things out that they seem to be grappling with.

I tend to think myself into holes that I can’t seem to get out of, and then some of my friends will come along and listen to me, to my problem(s) in full, will ask me questions that gently ease out the problems, make me feel calmer, and then help me to come to a conclusion – they don’t say ‘do this,’ or ‘do that,’ instead it’s all about questions ‘what do you think about this?’ – Questions, I think, are the way forward.

Wording and

Next post will be on some of these:

  • Space
  • General Helpfulness
  • Aiming For
  • Supporting Yourself

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