How to Speak to a Depressed Person — And the Dichotomy of Advice

YouTuber, author Anna Akana had an interesting video post regarding speaking to someone with depression.

The video itself tries to espouse the idea of listening with compassion which at face value seems easy enough to do, but from personal experience I can tell you that it’s a rare thing indeed. There’s a fine line between being able to listen to your friend and relate/connect (especially for those who have never gone through clinical depression) versus just feeling like an enabler or getting inundated with the other persons pain points.

The difficulty that I have with being open about depression, even to folks who were friends got me thinking just what is it that makes the process so much of a painful slog. One of the things I realized is that there are often two competing flows of advice out there which in some ways do a disservice to everyone.

Motivational advice and suggestions for ‘leading a good life’ often talk about ‘dumping the negative people’ in your life. Again, at first blush that makes total sense right? You want to keep a positive attitude, so you surround yourself with positive people… Except what happens when you ARE that negative person? You sort of find yourself an emotional leper on No-Frown island where all the shiny-happy people suddenly can’t connect, can’t engage you and your isolation becomes worse.

People always seem to have the same flip-in-script however when someone suffers from depression and takes things all the way to the most painful recourse of ending their lives. They always ask “I wish they would have talked to me.” I’ve found that sudden “Oh gosh I want the negative people to reach out to me” thing to be the big paradoxical twist to the advice. If you want to live your life by pushing away people who are negative, that’s one thing, but don’t suddenly be surprised when some of those people turn out to not be negative but suffering from depression.

Here’s where that middle ground is just so difficult to come by. You can certainly try to be selective about the people whom you choose to include in your life. Some may indeed be negative in nature, they may have beliefs that conflict, but in the end you have to decide are there enough redeeming things about your friendship/relationship with them that they still have a place.  For those people in your life who face the challenge of depression, being that compassionate listener for them isn’t easy, the process is a slippery slope that I don’t really feel anyone has a good answer for. For what it’s worth here’s my take, I have circles of friends that I can, to varying degrees unload onto when my depression gets too high. Some are better than others at being able to process that, objectively say something and refocus the conversation to other things in a tactful way. Others fall into what I call the mono-trap. Which is the one word response to anything I say the ‘hmm’, ‘yeah’, ‘uh huh’ type of situation. It’s mean to think it but I do place my friends into categorical buckets of how much raw unfiltered me I sense they can take. Some I trust enough to tell all the painful parts of what’s swirling around in my head, while others will only get a minimal of who am I before I feel my own toxicity requires me to get some distance.

When you are faced with battling depression, the hardest thing in the world is combating that feeling like nobody wants to talk to you. I prefer to think that depression makes you reassess how you communicate to friends/loved ones and puts a bit more onus on you to decide how to reach out. No one is magically going to know all the right things to say but you can let people in to try and ease the burden. While for some people therapists aren’t helpful, my own experiences have been positive. They offer a sounding board and nudge you in a more productive direction. No therapist is perfect but if you find a good rapport with one keep at it. So many problems are created by imperfect communication but learning to navigate your social circles and knowing when to create space versus when to let folks in is a powerful coping tool that I hope everyone tries to work on.


Author: vraxx

IT guy by trade, hobbyist photographer, divorcee