‘Take Care’ – What Not to Say to a Depressed Person

Six weeks ago, a little past 2 am, I sent a rather desperate phone message to a close friend — “I want to go on the terrace and scream and scream loudly, maybe I’ll feel better then…” 

The underlying, unspoken words, of course, were this: “Maybe then I will be heard, maybe then someone will figure out I am not doing well, maybe then someone will help.”

I should have just asked for help directly instead of expecting others (even close family and friends) to be mind-readers and figure out on their own just how bad things were getting for me.

And that’s the nub of it all — none of the people around you, including your loved ones, will be able to recognise that there is something terribly wrong; because after all, you can work, talk, eat, even laugh sometimes, ergo you must be fine. What it actually means is that you’ve succeeded rather well with the various masks you put on for the various people in your life — life partners, parents, work associates and family members. 

The invisibility of mental illness — of differing degree or intensity — is the perhaps the biggest hindrance in dealing with it. 

Acclaimed actor and comedian Robin Williams—a fellow sufferer—described it best, “People don’t fake depression, they fake being okay. Remember that, be kind.”

The most common stereotypes of how a depressed person should look and behave are often rooted in simple ignorance. If you go about your daily chores without obvious distress, you cannot be depressed. If you dissolve into tears and sob noisily and long, if you lash out angrily at people for no apparent reason or stop talking entirely, if you lie about in bed, yes then there’s something wrong. Those are more familiar symptoms even though the co-relation from that to the principal underlying cause is often missed or misunderstood. 

Your tears do dry up after a while, your anger dissipates, you do get out of the bed — your anxiety, depression, helplessness however stays locked within, unseen and unaddressed.  

After almost five months of a lonely struggle to keep my masks intact—easier to do in a pandemic where you’re mostly on the telephone with the outside world and no one can see you in your nightie at 5 pm—I gave up and gave in to the need to share my fears and state of mind. Implicit within this difficult decision was the very natural expectation of relief of some kind and degree. What I got, in varying decibels, were the words “Take care,” doubtless a kind sentiment but woefully inadequate to someone battling an illness akin to the Dementors mentioned in J K Rowlings’ books. A faceless, nameless entity sucking the very breath and every inch of happiness, even normalcy from you. Leaving you gasping, often literally, during a panic attack.

Take care, I quickly translated in my depressed, anxiety-ridden mind as the unspoken and unintended rider, ‘coz we ain’t gonna take care of you’

After several such responses and others exhorting me to ‘be positive and have faith,’with some folks even telling me what I was feeling was normal, (in other words gaslighting), what I ended up actually feeling was anger and fatigue. 

And diminished, for not being ‘strong’ enough to handle my own feelings.

Free tips for anyone interacting with survivors (because that’s what we are) of depression, anxiety or any form of mental illness really—do not EVER use the words strong and weak. Bite your tongue if need be, should you feel compelled to pass such judgements.

Also while dishing out well-meaning but sanctimonious advice of this nature, please don’t EVER use the phrase “Be positive”; it is literally a red rag in front of a bull. Because if we could we would.

Here’s a handy list of phrases and words that soothe instead of inflame, which I have compiled in the public interest.

Emulate Dr Frasier Crane, the radio psychiatrist from the popular 90’s show Frasier and say “I’m listening”. It works, every time. Though you actually have to listen and not merely go through the motions of listening.

A variation of this is the phrase “I hear you.”Again, this is helpful because someone is attempting to understand the enormity of what you’re feeling at that moment of sharing.

The uncrowned, hands-down winner in my opinion of course, is the four word phrase, “How can I help.”

And if you can articulate the nature and extent of help you need, that’s half the battle won already. Because the words provide reassurance and proof of caring—both sorely needed by the survivor who believes nobody does—as well as actual methods of relief that can be implemented.

The rest of it is different for different people.

It can be a combination of medication, therapy, meditation, group counselling, cognitive behaviour therapy, interventions by family and friends, self-soothing exercises once the worst is over, and lots more. A blend of all of the above enabled me to climb out of the abyss and get past the tipping point. If I’d remained within my self-imposed, solitary imprisonment I might not be writing this today.

Help others help you and then you can ‘take care’ (of yourself).

Warning: The views expressed here are based on personal experiences, what works, what doesn’t, what’s available. Please consult a mental health (MH) specialist in case of serious mental disorders.

Meet the Writer: Minnie Vaid

Minnie Vaid wears many hats—a journalist, documentary film maker, television professional and author. She is passionate about fighting against injustice via her films and books, is happiest while shooting with villagers in rural India and loves Shahrukh Khan–perhaps in precisely that order!

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