By Jack Smith
They stuffed my neighbor’s freezer full of casseroles. They cut our grass and brought candy to our kids. They said prayers, sent notes, posted Facebook messages and shot encouraging texts to my wife and to me.
They sent my wife and children on the trip of a lifetime—just as their dad had to leave them for a far-away clinic. But that wasn’t enough. They sent cash and gift cards and movies to watch on the way.
The extraordinary acts of kindness shown to us by our friends during my darkest hour renewed my faith in people.
Their generosity and my family’s support made it far easier to leave home for three weeks. It helped me focus on my illness and tackle my treatment like a determined linebacker.
Yet as I learned in treatment from others who aren’t so fortunate, people can say the darndest things. Even our families.
I was shocked at the way some families and friends talk to their loved ones, vulnerable people in the fight of their lives. I’ve even had well-intentioned friends tell me a few things that left me scratching my head or seething beneath the surface.
So I put together a list to help those with good intentions talk to someone coping with mental illness, especially depression.
5 things depressed people don’t want to hear
“Just have a positive attitude and you’ll feel better.”
I’ve heard this one before. It might not be hateful, but it’s still hurtful. Imagine you have cancer. Then imagine your cancer treatments make you feel so rotten you can’t get out of bed.
How would you feel if someone told you your cancer would get better if you just changed your attitude? Probably not very good.
“If you would just pray about it, you wouldn’t have this problem.”
There’s a big difference between someone praying for you and someone telling you the pain would go away if you’d just pray about it.
Prayer works. I believe that more than ever after the events of the past six weeks. The prayers sent up by so many lifted my spirits and motivated me to get better. But depression is a real illness just like diabetes or Alzheimer’s.
God doesn’t always answer prayers on our terms. He often lets us suffer for reasons we don’t understand. That shouldn’t cause us to question our faith, but it may cause us to question his plan. That’s okay. God can handle it.
A recent survey shows the church has a long way to go in dealing with mental illness. It showed 50 percent of evangelicals believe Bible study and prayer alone—in place of medical treatment—can cure mental illness.
I’m not suggesting prayer can’t make miracles happen. It does every day. I’m just saying mental illness is as real as diabetes, Alzheimer’s or heart disease.
I wonder how many folks surveyed would only rely only on Bible study and prayer if their son or daughter broke their arm.
“You need to remember there are people who are worse off than you.”
That’s true. But sometimes the truth hurts more than it helps. Depressed people already feel like they are mired in a pit of utter despair and hopelessness. They hurt down in their bones. They certainly don’t want to feel the guilt this classic comment creates. Please don’t say it.
“I know exactly how you feel.”
This one just isn’t true, either. Our minds are as different as our fingerprints. It only makes sense that depression or bipolar or any other mental illness will affect us all differently.
It might be true that you’ve experienced emotional or physical pain every bit as severe as the person you’re trying to make feel better. Just don’t say it—or at least say it differently.
“You just need to try harder to be happy.”
This one might be the worst. The father of a good friend I met at The Menninger Clinic told his son “you just need to get your (you-know-what) together. It was devastating for the son to hear amidst more than a dozen ECT treatments for major depression.
I’ve had depression so severe I couldn’t make it to the mailbox. I’ve felt so bad mentally and physically that trudging up the stairs felt like lifting an anvil with every step. Nobody with depression needs to be told to “try harder” when he or she is doing all they can do to wake up and get out of bed.
Words have the power to heal. They also have the power to hurt those who are already hurting enough. Choose them wisely.
P.S. One day soon, I’ll share 5 things we should say to those who are hurting.