“My girlfriend has Bipolar. We have been together for the past four years and things have gone, for the most part, swimmingly, but recently things started to fall apart. She fell into a severe depression and everything I try to do to help only seems to make it worse. She claims that I don’t understand, and maybe I don’t, but I am trying to learn so I can be better for her. My question is how do I talk to her about whatever is bothering her at the time without making her mood worse? I want to help, but it seems like I am only making things worse.”
Knowing how to talk to someone who is clinically depressed is a learned skill. It involves patience, empathy, and love. The Depression Alliance (http://www.depressionalliance.org/) has an excellent list of what to say and not to say to someone who is depressed:
- You’re not alone in this.
- You are important to me.
- Do you want a hug?
- You are not going mad.
- We are not on this earth to see through one another, but to see one another through.
- When all this is over, I’ll still be here, and so will you.
- I can’t really understand what you are feeling, but I can offer my compassion.
- I’m not going to leave you or abandon you.
- I love you (if you mean it).
- I’m sorry that you’re in so much pain. I am not going to leave you. I am going to take care of myself, so you don’t need to worry that your pain might hurt me.
- There’s always someone worse off than you are.
- No one ever said that life was fair.
- Stop feeling sorry for yourself.
- So, you’re depressed. Aren’t you always?
- Try not to be so depressed.
- It’s your own fault.
- I think your depression is a way of punishing us.
- Haven’t you grown tired of all this me, me, me stuff yet?
- Believe me, I know how you feel. I was depressed once for several days.
- Have you tried chamomile tea?
Some of the things on the DON’T SAY list are clearly wrong, cruel, and frankly patronizing. These two lists basically show the difference between empathy (what you should say) and sympathy (what you should not say). Empathy is the ability to place oneself in someone else’s shoes, to understand, to show compassion and give good solid help. Empathy comes from deep inside; it’s based on love and respect. With sympathy—or pity—there is a measure of judgment, blame, and culpability. “Oh, I feel so sorry for you! You poor thing! Having to go through this….” Or: “Why are you putting us through this?” This is obviously not what your girlfriend wants or needs.
Empathy shows you understand without laying blame. “I may not understand exactly how you feel, but I’m here and I love you.” This is really all you can do. She may not feel like talking. She may not feel like sharing the darkness coursing through her soul. But never doubt that she appreciates your love and caring. Never doubt that you are helping her simply by being there, silently, but fully. Depression cannot be “talked away,” but it can be eased along toward improvement by companionship and human compassion. Instead of talking, you may want to encourage her to do the things she likes. Suggest the two of you go to a movie or dinner or whatever it is that you both enjoyed while she was well. Maybe cooking that favorite meal together or taking a walk on a nice sunny day. People who are depressed have a hard time getting motivated and can get “stuck.” Small things can make a huge difference. I would try to avoid large things, however. Expecting too much can put focus on the depression and cause her to feel guilt when she is unable to meet your expectations.
Number 10 on the DO SAY list is especially important. I am going to take care of myself, so you don’t need to worry that your pain might hurt me. It’s very hard to be around someone who’s severely depressed. Depression has a way of being “contagious.” A loved one’s severe depression can suck the wind out of the sails of the most upbeat of people. It’s critical that you take care of yourself. Continue doing the things that bring you joy. Let her see how joyful you are. Joy, like depression, is also contagious—all you can hope for is that, with time, she becomes susceptible.