It can be really hard to watch someone you love experience mental illness. You would do anything to make them feel better, but most of the time, it just doesn’t work that way. It can also be very confusing, loving someone with mental illness, especially if you don’t have a mental illness yourself. My husband has told me that one of his biggest frustrations is when he can tell something is wrong, but no matter how many times he asks, no matter how many different ways, I won’t talk about it. Other people in my life, like friends and family, have expressed surprise when they read this blog and get a glimpse at how painful my experiences with mental illness can really be. Sometimes they seem hurt that I haven’t reached out to them.
Today I thought I would try to explain some of the reasons people don’t reach out when they’re depressed. This is based entirely on my own experience with depression, but if you have other reasons you tend to isolate when you’re depressed, I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
10 Reasons People Don’t Reach Out When They’re Depressed
1. It won’t solve anything.
This is one of the biggest reasons I don’t reach out when I’m depressed. It just doesn’t help anything. Nothing my husband or friends or family says will magically make my brain create more seratonin. I just feel like there’s no point in reaching out if it won’t change anything.
2. Nothing is “wrong,” so we don’t know what to say.
On days where I do decide I want to reach out, I almost always end up changing my mind because I just have no idea what to say. The thing about depression is it isn’t caused by anything (a lot of the time). What do I say? “Hey, I’m feeling sad and empty for absolutely no reason”? That doesn’t feel like it’ll lead to much of a conversation.
3. We don’t want to drag you down with us.
I hate it when my crappy mental health ruins a perfectly good day for my husband. If he’s feeling happy and productive, the last thing I want to do is bring him down with my depression. It feels much kinder to just pretend nothing is wrong, since talking about it won’t help me, it’ll just make him sad (see reason #1).
4. It’s hard to find the words to explain what we’re feeling (or not feeling).
Sometimes my depression is the presence of horrible feelings that I have no idea how to describe. It’s like sadness on steroids. Like anger if it were drowning. Like deep, profound loss except you can’t remember what you’re mourning. How do you talk about that in a normal conversation? Then other times, my depression is the absence of feeling. I just feel…empty. So utterly devoid of anything, and how in the world are you supposed to articulate that?
5. We’re afraid you’ll misunderstand and think we’re just lazy or sad.
In my experience, our loved ones don’t want us to be depressed because it’s a horribly painful experience. So they try to find other explanations. But this only adds to the pain of depression because it tells us that you don’t believe us. One of the only things that actually makes depression feel slightly less terrible is when someone truly sees and appreciates how terrible you’re feeling and just acknowledges that pain as very real and very scary. And when loved ones suggest we might not really be depressed, then we don’t feel seen at all. If you really saw how much this hurts, you’d believe us without question.
6. Part of us believes we’re just lazy or sad.
If your depression has been invalidated over and over, eventually a part of you will start to believe that invalidation. It has taken me years to learn to identify my depression as depression rather than shaming myself into thinking I’m just lazy and terrible, or just sad and exaggerating.
7. Sometimes we are in denial about our own depression.
Because I’m such an overthinker, this one is rare for me, but it has happened. Sometimes people can be depressed without totally realizing it because they’re in denial. Being depressed sucks, and sometimes you just want to be okay for once, so you fake it until you actually kind of believe it.
8. We already think about our depression all the time, we don’t want to talk about it too.
Depression is a self-absorbed little bitch, and it wants you to think about it all. the. time. If you’re like me and your particular flavor of mental illness comes with a rather unhealthy dose of obsession, this means that depression is on your mind 99.9% of the time. Sometimes, I just don’t want to add to all the thinking about depression by talking about it too.
If someone you love has depression, have you ever noticed them moving significantly slower than normal? That could be because of motor retardation, which is when you try to move and it feels like you’re moving through molasses. Honestly, you know you should be able to move faster, but you just… can’t. And that applies to even the smallest movements, like moving your mouth to speak. Sometimes, it feels like the molasses is filling your mouth and to talk would be exhausting.
10. We’re afraid you’re going to be annoyed or upset that we’re depressed again.
Often depression can be treated, but not cured, and in most cases, it comes back again and again. As someone who has been working to treat her depression for years now, I can honestly say that with treatment, it can get better. Like, so much better. But I still get depressed sometimes, and it can be scary to reach out and admit that you’re depressed again, because even though you know there’s no real “cure,” you kinda hoped your last depressive episode was going to be your last one ever, somehow. And it’s hard to break that news to someone who loves you. Like “Hey, yeah, I know I’ve been OK for a long time now, but now I’m depressed again, sorry.” It feels like you’ve failed them, like you must have missed your meds or skipped therapy or stopped trying so hard, when in reality, depression just keeps coming back.
What Can Loved Ones Do?
My husband asks me all the time “What can I do?” so I thought there might be other people out there with loved ones who have depression wondering what they can do. The truth is, I believe it isn’t your responsibility to get us to reach out about our depression. Our emotions are not your job (even if we want to make them your job sometimes — sorry about that). But even so, that doesn’t mean you have to sit by and watch us struggle all alone. There are several things you can do to help us reach out to you when we’re depressed.
Do your own research on depression. If you are informed about what we’re going through, you’re much less likely to suggest that we’re just sad or say something else that might be very invalidating and damage our trust in you.
Let us know that you’re here whenever we’re ready to talk. This is the one of the kindest things my husband does for me when I’m depressed or when I’m panicking and can’t speak. Instead of forcing the issue, he sits nearby doing a quiet activity like reading or playing a video game, and repeatedly lets me know he is happy to talk whenever I feel ready.
When we do talk about our depression, don’t focus on fixing it. Focus on acknowledging it. Depression isn’t really something you “fix.” It’s something you treat with therapy and sometimes medication, neither of which you can provide. What you can provide is the gentle acknowledgement of how much depression sucks.
So that’s all the information I have on why people don’t always reach out when they’re feeling depressed and what you can do about it if you have a loved one with depression. Would anyone be interested in another version of this post, but about anxiety or trauma? I’d love to hear your thoughts, just let me know in the comments!
A version of this article was previously published on the author’s blog, Megan Writes Everything.