But wouldn't it be so much better to try suggesting ways of talking to someone suffering from depression in a way that is supportive and helpful? Maybe even point out that people with depression are also, well, just people. If we want to get rid of the stigma attached to mental illness, how about we stop defining ourselves as us and them? We are all, in our own unique and splendid ways, flawed human beings. I can't help but feel that history has shown us time and again that dividing people into tribes, whether by colour, race, religion, sexuality or health has never really panned out well as a strategy. And just like so many other divisive catergories, it's not as though anyone chooses any degree of mental ill health. And it is a matter of degree. We all have problems, it's just only some of those problems have labels.
People aren't all the same. Depressed people aren't all the same.
Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.
- Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
I scored at only a moderate level of anxiety on the standardised tests, but I have a lovely friend who struggles at a much deeper level and to a much greater extent than I do. I had post-natal depression, from which I recovered, because post-natal depression's like that, you can recover. But I have another lovely friend who has been pursued by the black dog for many years, and for whom the goal is to manage the depression, not to be "cured". Through my own experience I've had a chance to ask what does help, rather than just be hectored about what doesn't. And isn't that really a better approach to life? "How can I help?" is a much better question than "How can I not screw up?"
Go on, give it a go, don't just aspire to not being an arse, aim for the dizzy heights of being a compassionate human being.
Just as every person is different, every person's experience of depression is different. I'm not a mental health expert - I can hardly manage my own, let alone tell anyone else what to do - so I can't claim to give a one-size-fits-all guide to helping someone with depression. I can tell you some things that mattered for me though*:
- Reach out. I might tell you there's nothing you can do to help, but the fact that you've offered means the world.
- Keep reaching out. Just because I said I didn't need anything last time you asked, doesn't mean it's still true. And the fact that you've offered means the world.
- Listen. That's all, I just want someone to listen without judgment.
- Listen again. I know I said the same thing last time, but I still just need someone to listen without judgement.
Which reminds me, it's time to phone my friend and see how he is.
* I've written these in the present tense and in the first person, because it was getting too clunky trying to write "a person with depression" instead of "I" or write about how it felt a couple of years ago. I am fortunate enough not to be suffering from depression now, so please don't panic and think you have to check that I'm OK!