The one conversation that uplifted me more than any other in my life was with a woman who told me how, a few days earlier, she drove her Jeep Wrangler to the edge of the Grand Canyon and sat there, revving the engine, thinking about driving over. Even though I had severe social anxiety, in that conversation, I was totally at ease.
She told me what was going on in her life in the days and months leading up, what her thoughts were at that exact moment, why she wanted to die, and why she didn't do it. We nodded and half-smiled, and then it was my turn to talk about my journey to a dining table in the hygienic community area of the mental health wing of a mountain-town hospital. I took too many sleeping pills, and after they treated me for that, they were like, "Hey, we would love it if you would be our guest in the psych ward."
We joked that her suicide would have made a way better postcard. We talked shop. She allowed me to be deeply depressed and have a genuine connection to another person, simultaneously. For the first time, I identified as somebody living with depression, and I felt good about it—like I was wasn't a bad person for it.
Now imagine one of the people at that table was a member of your family or a close friend. Would you be comfortable talking to them? What if instead of the hospital, they were at your kitchen table and told you they were really depressed?
The World Health Organization says that depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide, affecting 350 million people. The National Institute of Mental Health reports seven percent of Americans experiencing depression in a year. So depression is super common, yet in my experience, most folks don't want to talk to depressed people unless we pretend to be happy. A cheerful facade is appropriate for casual interactions. A depressed person can ask for extra syrup in their pumpkin spice latte without explaining that they need it because they're trapped in the infinite darkness of their soul and they've lost all hope of escape—again.
Depression doesn't diminish a person's desire to connect with other people, just their ability. So in spite of what you might think, talking to friends and family living with depression can be really easy and maybe even fun. Not, like, Facebook-selfie-with-Lady-Gaga- at-an-underground-party fun—I'm talking about the kind of fun where people enjoy each other's company effortlessly. Nobody feels awkward, and no one accuses the sad person of ruining the holidays.
Why does this chasm even exist? On the one side, you have people living with depression who may act in off-putting or confusing ways because they're fighting a war in their head that nobody else can see. On the other side, the vast majority of people look across the chasm and shake their heads, like, "Why you gotta be so depressed?"
You may recognize a divide like this in your life. Do you want to build a bridge across it? You may not want to build a bridge—and that's a totally valid choice. Or maybe you'd like to build a stronger connection, but you have a lot of questions and concerns. You're what I might call "bridge curious."
Here are some possible reasons why some of you may avoid depressed people. You might be afraid that if you talk to somebody while they're depressed, you're suddenly responsible for their well-being. You're not expected to be Dr. Phil. Just be friendly—more like Ellen.
You may worry that you won't know what to say, and every attempt at conversation will be awkward, and the only time you'll feel comfortable is when you both just give up on talking and stare at your phones. Words are not the most important thing to focus on. You might fear seeing your shadow. Hey, if you have been successfully outrunning your personal emotional demons, that's awesome. May the wind be at your back. You can be the least woo-woo person in the world and still connect with depressed people. Maybe you've heard that depression is contagious, and you're afraid of catching it. Bring some hand sanitizer.
You're much more likely to catch the joy of human bonding.
Maybe you see depressed people differently. You think of them as flawed or defective. Multiple university studies have shown that A students are more likely to have bipolar condition. Our brains aren't broken or damaged, they just work differently. I spent a lot of years thinking happy people just don't get it.
I did eventually stop discriminating against happy people—
I began battling depression when I was eight, and decades later, to my surprise, I started winning. I shifted from being miserable much of the time to enjoying life. I live pretty well with my bipolar condition, and I've overcome some other mental health conditions like overeating, addiction and social anxiety. So I live on both sides of this chasm. And I'm offering some guidance based on my experience to help you build a bridge across it if you want to. It's not hard science, but I worked with a lot people I know who've lived with depression to refine these suggestions.
First up, some things you might want to avoid—some "don'ts." One of the most off-putting things you can say is, "Just get over it."Great idea—love it, it's just we already thought of that.
The absence of the ability to just get over it is depression.
We feel it in our bodies—it's a physical thing for us. And medically it's no different from telling someone with a broken ankle or cancer, "just get over it." Don't be hell-bent on fixing us. Like, thank you, but...the pressure can make us depressed people feel like we're disappointing you. Also, things that make some people feel better may not work for us. You can't cure clinical depression by getting ice cream...which is unfortunate, because that would be living the dream.
Don't take a negative response personally. So, I have a friend who, about a year ago, messaged me that he was really isolated and depressed. And I suggested some things for him to do, and he was like, "No, no and no." And I got mad, like, how dare he not embrace my brilliant wisdom?
And then I remembered times I've been depressed, and how I thought I was doomed in all possible futures, or everybody suddenly hated me, and things like that. It didn't matter how many people told me otherwise—I didn't believe them. So I let my friend know I cared, and I didn't take it personally.
Don't let a lack of bubbly happiness freak you out. It's not a shark attack. "Call the coast guard, my friend is sad!"
We can be sad and OK at the same time. I'm going to say that again, because in our society, we're taught the opposite, and so it's counterintuitive. People can be sad and OK at the same time.
So some of these things may apply to you personally, some may not. Take what's useful. And remember, you don't have to connect. If you want to, here are some suggestions that may help—some "dos." Talk to us in your natural voice, right?
You don't need to put on a sad voice because we're depressed—you don't sneeze when you're talking to somebody with a cold.
It's not rude to be upbeat. You can be you, OK? If you make an offer to be there for us, clearly state what you can and can't do. I have told people, "Hey, call or text any time, but I might not be able to get back to you that same day." It's totally cool to not make an offer, or to make a narrow offer with really clear boundaries around it. Give us a sense of control. Like, get our consent. I have a friend who, a while back, when I was having a depressive episode, reached out and said, "Hey, I want to check in with you. Can I call you every day? Maybe text you every day and call later in the week? What works for you?" By getting my permission, she earned my complete confidence and remains one of my best friends today. Let us belong, even if we suicidally ideate, meaning finding relief from inner pain by imagining escaping living. It's not a planned act. It's like a psychologically valve to release pressure. And I'm not endorsing it or denouncing it, I'm just letting you see that depressed people can imagine escaping their lives as casually as you some of you may think about the weather. I do a comedy show about depression, and depressed people love to laugh about ideation because they can relate. And my last suggestion is: interact about not depression, aka, normal stuff. I have a friend who, when people were worried about him, they would call and ask if he wanted to go shopping or help them clean out their garage. Your depressed friends could be a good source of free labor—
What I'm really getting at is, invite them to contribute to your life in some way, even if it's as small as asking you to go see a movie that you wanted to see in the theater.
So that's a lot of dos and don'ts and maybes, and it's not by any means a definitive list. The thing to remember is that they're all grounded in one guiding principle. It's what allowed the woman in the Jeep Wrangler to start me on the path to recovery without even trying. She talked to me like I belonged and contributed exactly as I was at that moment. If you talk to a depressed person as if their life is just as valuable, intense and beautiful as yours, then there's no need to build a bridge between you, because you've closed the chasm. Focus on that instead of your words, and it may be the most uplifting conversation of their life. What could that do for somebody you care about? What could it do for you? Thank you.