Wednesday 16 October 2013

Talking To The Depressed

Guidance on talking to the depressed, should you ever find yourself doing such a miserable task

  1. Remember you’re talking to the depression, not the person: Ever seen the episode of “The Thick of It” where Malcolm Tucker rants that there IS no Malcolm Tucker, because his job has eaten him alive and is walking around wearing his skin? Depression is like that. The person you know is in there somewhere, but if the depression’s really bad, you’re talking to the illness, not the person. 
  2. Expect negativity: Depressed people are negative. Relentlessly. Depression does this, because you need mental energy to be able to envision the world in an alternative way and right now they are completely mentally exhausted, their brain chemistry is haywire, and their brain is occupied by a demented voice screaming loudly that the world is awful and there is no hope. When your depressed person starts going on about how awful everything is, don’t try to reason them out of it. By all means point out that there are alternative ways of seeing the world, just don’t expect to be able to argue them into not being depressed.
  3. Don’t expect to fix the problem: You may persuade a person with a mild case of the glooms to see the world in a slightly more cheerful way, but someone with serious depression can’t be fixed by a one-off talk, any more than you can fix a broken leg by talking at it. That’s not to say you shouldn’t try, or that the person won’t appreciate your efforts (though the appreciation may come a bit later when the depression starts to lift), but someone with depression probably needs sustained medical treatment. 
  4. Don’t expect gratitude: Gratitude takes energy too. A common way for the conversation to go is for the non-depressed person to persistently try to reason the depressed person out of their depression, then look at them with a faintly expectant expression. You may quite reasonably feel that you’ve just given up your own time and energy to look after someone else and that you’d like a thank-you, but it may not happen. (I’ve encountered a couple of people where it was hard not to think that they were trying to help me so they could get the ego-boost of “fixed someone’s depression!” It doesn’t work like that. Don’t ask me to make you feel better when I’m feeling awful.) 
  5. Don’t take it on yourself: Depression is their illness. If you walk away from the conversation feeling like you haven’t cheered them up and wondering what the point was, remember that it’s their depression, not yours. You did your best. 
  6. Don’t try to fix everything: Even if they reel off a shopping list of woes, don’t try to suggest solutions for every one of them. Implementing lots of solutions needs lots of energy. Picking a small thing and suggesting a way to make it mildly better may work, but don’t push too hard. 
  7. Don’t forget the small stuff: Have they eaten or drunk anything recently? Biscuit and a cup of tea will not fix depression, but it may help a bit. 
  8. Try to gently dissuade them from anything drastic: Again, remember that they have an illness and unless you’re a doctor or therapist, you’re not responsible for curing it, or for the consequences of it. However, if they suggest doing anything drastic (Facebook rants about how dire the world is, quitting their course of study in a blaze of despair, breaking up with a partner), try to gently persuade them to sleep on it or put it off until they’re in a better frame of mind. 
  9. Ask how they are, but don’t ask for a medical bulletin: Please do ask them how they are when you see them in future, and by all means ask if they’re feeling better, but don’t bring the depression up every single time you see them and ask for a detailed update – if for no other reason that the answer really may well be “same as last time, thanks” or “all right”.

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