This post is inspired by two things. The first is Deborah Orr’s article in the Guardian in April about what not to say when your friend is diagnosed with cancer. The second is the charity Time To Change’s recent survey into mental health clichés (now closed).
Having depression is no joke. There are many different types of depression, but each is no less serious to the person suffering with it – and those closest to them. And each is no less catastrophic and soul-sapping to the person suffering with it.
But it can be difficult for friends, colleagues, family to know the right thing to say. Hopefully, these people haven’t experienced depression themselves so they’re lucky not to have first hand experience of this living hell – the kind of hell that makes you spend hour after hour imagining the smallest possible hole in a corner of your house, and how you might crawl into it without anyone noticing and ever finding you again.
But by not having experienced it first hand, it’s hard for them to appreciate how unbearable depression is. And I understand that. Many years ago, before I was diagnosed, a colleague was signed off for six months with stress. I laughed to another colleague, “Well, I’m stressed, too. Why can’t I be signed off work for six months? Brilliant!” He tried to explain that stress was an illness, but I didn’t get it. Looking back, I’m ashamed of myself for being so callous. That said, by having been that person, it gives me the perspective to recognise ignorance of mental health for what it often is: genuine ignorance. Blissful ignorance.
What follows is my top ten of ignorant things people have said to me in an effort to help. NB: these are all genuine things that have been said to me by well-meaning people during the heights of my depressive episodes.
1 “Just cheer up.”
2 “Snap out of it.”
3 “You’ve been signed off work indefinitely? Nice one!”
4 “You should rewrite your Will.”
5 “Think of Madeline McCann’s mother. Her situation is much worse than yours.”
6 “At least you’re not dead.”
7 “At least you’re not Kerry Katona.”
8 “There’s plenty of people worse off than you. You’ve got a family who love you, a job and a house. You’re so lucky.”
9 “When will you be better?”
10 “Oh, not again.”
Someone on Twitter told me that when they were signed off for a long period with mental illness, a colleague asked who their GP was because they wanted to be signed off, too. It’s this culture of misunderstanding mental health AND of thinking it’s a good skive that means a charity like Time To Change is needed more than ever.
Time To Change is England’s biggest ever attempt to challenge the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness face. They are doing an incredible job, and I thank them for that. I’ve seen Time To Change on the internet, Facebook, Twitter, in libraries and on TV… it is everywhere and it needs to be everywhere, because people with mental illness are everywhere. Worse, the people they encounter are also everywhere, with ignorant comments and unhelpful suggestions, coupled with behind-your-back sniggers about ‘the mad woman over there, shh, she’s coming this way’.
If you know someone with depression and you’d like to help them, here is my list of suggestions:
1 Don’t be frightened of them. This person is your friend, not a monster!
2 If you don’t know what to say, or they don’t feel up to seeing you, send them a text or email asking them how they are, or telling them something daft you’ve just seen.
3 Talk to them in exactly the same way as you did before you knew they were ill, about exactly the same things – because they’re still exactly the same person.
4 But make allowances for the fact that they’re feeling fragile, and maybe going to a loud bar or a crowded place isn’t ideal right now.
5 If you’re coming round to visit, ask if you can bring anything. They might not feel up to going out, but they still need milk, biscuits etc.
6 Let them know that you’re always there if they want to talk, but don’t be pushy.
7 Try not to be judgemental, even unintentionally.
8 Even though it can be hard work spending time with someone with depression, try. It makes such a difference knowing people don’t hate you.
9 The little things count. When I was at my most unwell, my best friend, who lived in a different part of the country, would send me postcards with a silly in-joke that only we shared. These made such an enormous difference to me – they told me that my friend didn’t judge me, that she still wanted to be my friend even though I wasn’t well, and that she was thinking about me even when she didn’t need to be. They still mean a lot to me, and the person who sent them is the best friend I will ever have.
10 Most of all – ensure your friend knows you aren’t going to break their confidences by gossiping about them. When you achieve that, you’re really getting somewhere.
It takes courage to talk to someone about their mental illness, and to talk about your own mental illness. So cut yourself some slack… you don’t need to get it spot on first time. Just being there and being open to it is a huge step in the right direction. Good luck.