When I started experiencing depression, one of my childhood friends told me that she spent a long time trying to understand what I was going through — until she realized that she didn't need to understand it completely to be there for me.
What she said has stayed with me for years, because I had spent so much time before then trying to make people in my life "get" what depression felt like. And while no one should have to defend their mental health disorder to anyone, I always thought it was important for the people I loved to understand why I was the way I was.
"[Depression is] one of those things where people think you have some sort of control over it because it’s your mind," she says. "Whereas if it’s cancer then it’s like, 'Well you didn’t do that to yourself.' It’s misinformation that’s led to misconception, stigma, and misunderstanding."
Of course, like in my friend's case, a person doesn't necessarily have to personally relate to what you're going through to be able to support you, but it can sometimes feel like a personal slight if someone in your life doesn't understand depression and says something (accidentally or not) that offends you, or is so baffled by it that they don't even believe it's real. As painful as that can be, Dr. Goodman says that if you really want someone to understand, or to be able to talk to them about it, realize first that it likely isn't personal.
"Understand that it’s something that they’re having trouble with and that’s [about] them and not you," Dr. Goodman says. She suggests talking about it from your point of view, and being open about how the people in your life can be helpful.
[Depression is] one of those things where people think you have some sort of control over it because it’s your mind.
Robin Goodman, PhD
If someone says something off-putting, she suggests saying something like, "When you say things like that it actually isn’t so helpful to me. But what is helpful is if you just say, 'I really support you even if I don’t fully understand — let me know how I can help.'"
Dr. Goodman says it might also help to talk about the symptoms you're having instead of depression as a wider label. For instance, maybe you share that you had a hard time getting out of bed that day, or how you don't feel like doing any of the things you used to enjoy. But if someone truly doesn't get it, she says, you might have to agree to disagree.
"If you wind up having to explain and take care of them, that might not be someone that’s going to be supportive and you might have to find someone else [to talk to]," she says. "You have different people you share different things with, and that's okay. You have to decide [people's] role in your life, what kind of support they [offer], and who you feel safe with."
That might not be as helpful if, say, someone in your family thinks depression just doesn't exist, in which case Dr. Goodman reiterates that you can be firm about your own experiences, and say something like, "That’s not my experience and that’s not what my doctors say, it’s unfortunate that you think that."
All of that is to say, you deserve to be around people who can have compassion for you and support you, even if they don't fully understand. And that might mean focusing on your relationships with the people who do show up instead of the ones who don't.
"Sometimes we’re surprised by the people that step up and can support us in ways we didn’t expect," Dr. Goodman says.
If you are experiencing depression and need support, please call the National Depressive/Manic-Depressive Association Hotline at 1-800-826-3632 or the Crisis Call Center’s 24-hour hotline at 1-775-784-8090.