Medically reviewed by Katelyn Hagerty, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 11/1/2022
Figuring out how to explain depression to someone is, frankly, one of the hardest things about being depressed.
There are no two ways about it: when your brain is the thing causing problems by distorting your worldview with feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, it’s hard to even comprehend a reality in which those negative self-talk statements aren’t true.
And yet, there they are, making you think you’re worthless, as all your loved ones try to support you.
The last thing you want is for your family members, close friends or romantic partner to grow frustrated, to give up because they don’t know how to help, or to misunderstand your symptoms as some sleight toward them.
If you have a depressive disorder, you already understand intimately how important being able to communicate those feelings to someone is. (And if you didn’t already, you’re probably realizing it now.)
But getting a non-depressed person to understand depression is difficult for many reasons. We’ll go over these roadblocks below and offer tips and guidance for talking to your loved ones about your condition.
Mental health is hard to see, plain and simple. Chances are, you know at least one person who has struggled with major depression, but they may have never exhibited any signs of their disorder — at least, none that you’ve noticed.
There’s a wide knowledge and experience gap between people who’ve personally dealt with severe depression and those who haven’t.
For people with mental health issues, depression symptoms are very real. But for those who haven’t struggled, someone else’s symptoms of depression may be easily written off as something less serious.
These misunderstandings are called “stigma.” And over the centuries, they’ve been a massive hindrance to the evolution of mental health resources, the people suffering from disorders like depression and anxiety, and society itself.
Statistics paint a clear picture of the toll. Around one in four Americans will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime. And yet only in the last few decades have medication and therapy emerged from the shadowy “shame” spaces into the spotlight, where they can save more lives.
Mental health conditions like clinical depression are often difficult to put into words — and it can be especially hard to find those words during depressive episodes.
In fact, one of the symptoms of depression is brain fog, which can involve reduced memory, difficulty concentrating and general cognitive issues. (You can read more about brain fog and depression in our guide.)
When depressed individuals talk about their symptoms and experiences with depression, they’re often explaining their view of the world around them.
For instance, a person with a history of depression might say their current circumstances are hopeless or that their life is meaningless. They may also express a false belief that they have no value or that they feel an immense amount of guilt for things out of their control.
Depression is a mental health disorder. It affects how you see the world, almost like a camera filter. Imagine only being able to see negatives, and you’ll begin to understand.
Unfortunately, this is often where well-intended friends and loved ones can make the error of saying things like “Cheer up” or “Just try to push through it.” The issue here is in thinking the depressed person can see that they’re looking through a filter or that they can break free of their condition by some sheer force of will.
Willing away depression is a lot like lifting a car: sure, you’ve heard stories of people doing it, but the reason you’ve heard those stories is that they’re exceedingly rare story-worthy occurrences. The point is, most people can’t lift cars, and most people can’t just “get over” depression.
In short, explaining depression to someone who hasn’t experienced it is difficult because it tasks the depressed person with having an unrealistic perspective on their illness. It also requires the one who’s never experienced the mental illness to empathize with someone whose mind works entirely differently from theirs.
Either of those tasks is extremely challenging by itself. Together, they’re relatively impossible — at least, without the right tools, information and expert support.
So, what do you say? What do you tell your loved ones about depression? You shouldn’t have to tell them much more than the truth: you’re depressed.
But you might ask them to spend a little time reading about depression. They can learn how to talk about the condition without putting the burden of teaching on your shoulders.
And there are some helpful tips you can give them when you sit down for a discussion about your depression.
You might tell your friends and family to continue encouraging you to get treatment for depression, even on the days when you aren’t motivated. Keep goals in mind, and remind them that accepting support may be easier on some days than others.
It might also help to give the people in your life some facts. Tell them the risk factors for depression include medical conditions, genetics and stress.
Explain that the symptoms of depression can involve a lack of energy, weight gain and weight loss, a depressed mood, reduced interest in social activities, feelings of sadness and feelings of worthlessness. Additionally, make it clear that you can be experiencing depression without any physical symptoms they can see.
Remind your loved ones not to take your condition out on you. Your depression can be irritating, but explain that it’s not fair to direct that anger at you. You’re not against each other — you’re teammates in the fight against depression.
One thing they’ll be relieved to hear is that it’s not their job to “fix” you. Your depression can’t be solved by arguing, yelling or adopting some new TikTok guru’s three-step morning routine.
Instead, their best impact can come from reminding you of small victories in the moments you feel lost.
There are many ways to support someone with depression. However, two things a friend or family member should never do are question why you’re depressed or tell you to just “think happy.”
A depressed person doesn’t need a specific reason to have a chemical imbalance. And it’s often the case that those questioning “what you have to be depressed about” don’t understand that depression doesn’t work like that. In the same vein, it can’t be “smiled” away or simply “snapped out of.”
The only way to overcome depression is to pursue treatment, which is far from instantaneous. But it is effective if done correctly.
A person who’s supposed to be supporting you through your mental health journey should understand that you both need to be patient with treatment. Most mental health treatments take time, effort and practice before showing benefits.
Antidepressant medication is often assumed to provide fairly quick results. But unfortunately, antidepressants don’t really work that way.
These medications are designed to help your brain build a supply of neurotransmitters like serotonin. In a normal person’s brain, serotonin is like a safety net, regulating your mood and preventing you from hitting those low moments.
People with depression and other mental health disorders often don’t have a proper supply of serotonin, so when they have a bad day, they hit the rocks.
Antidepressants work to correct this, but it takes time for them to build a serotonin surplus in the brain. It might be weeks or even months before you see the full benefits, and dosage modifications can delay results further.
Therapy works too. But like going to the gym, the results aren’t going to be instantaneous.
The most popular form of therapy today is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). It involves learning to reframe negative thoughts, which can be a long-haul process.
Tell a loved one therapy is about learning to question your own thoughts that may be causing distress. Making sense of this concept might be enough to tie a healthy mind in a knot, but it’s crucial they understand the process.
Throughout the journey, the role of your loved ones is support — when you’re down, when you’re not seeing progress, when you’re thinking about giving up. They need to be well-educated on treatments to help you see the light at the end of the tunnel when you may only see darkness.
Let’s get real here: depression is enough responsibility for an adult. It shouldn’t be your job to explain it to anyone, but it often is. It’s not fair, and it’s not your fault.
You have one responsibility to yourself, which is to get better. While not everyone will be understanding of the process, those who love and care about you will adapt, just as you’re adapting through treatment.
You deserve love, support and encouragement from your friends, family and loved ones. But you also deserve to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through on a professional level. Get that support today.