How to Explain Depression to Those You Love

By Kimberly Zapata

When I was 15 years old, I was diagnosed with depression. I was young and naive; I was scared and ashamed; and I had no desire to explain my disease to anyone because I didn’t want others to know I was “sick.” I didn’t want others to think I was crazy.

I didn’t want others to know I was crazy.

My depression was like a scarlet letter — a big and not-so-bright marker of my shame — and I worked hard to hide it. I worked hard to keep it a secret. And for 16 years I kept my mental illness from my family, my colleagues, and my closest friends.

However, my outlook on my disease changed once I became a mother. A mother who struggled with postpartum depression. A mother who was plagued by suicidal thoughts and worries about the impact her mental illness was having on her family.

And a mother who was constantly afraid of how her depression could — and would — affect her daughter.

After a lifetime of secrecy and silence, I knew I had to speak up and speak out — for my daughter, for my husband, and for me. I had to share this part of me.

But how does one truly explain depression? I mean, how could I possibly explain the “darkness” and hopelessness I feel? How could I possibly make someone else understand the loneliness of this disease — how I feel lost even in a crowded room? How I feel lost in my own body and my own mind? How could I make others understand something I couldn’t? (Something I try to come to terms with each and every day.)

And the truth was, I couldn’t.

I struggle with symptoms my family will never understand; I have thoughts and feelings which my friends cannot comprehend. (Hell, I have thoughts and feelings I will never understand.) But I decided to start small. I found “depression quotes” which I could relate to. I read stories of other survivors. Honest stories. Painful stories. Stories full of hope, and stories which left me feeling gutted. And I began writing myself. I didn’t worry about the words or sentence structure, I just wrote. In the dark moments, with tears in my eyes and a shaky hand, I wrote. I wrote the rapid thoughts. The erratic thoughts. I tried to find words to describe the anger, the sadness, the emptiness, and the hollowness. I tried to find a words to describe my suicidal thoughts without sounding “crazy.” (Just because I was suicidal, didn’t mean I wanted to die. I just wanted the pain to stop. I just wanted the shit to stop.) Then I shared these words with my husband, with my mother and brother, with my in-laws, my extended family, and my Facebook friends. Eventually, the writer in me decided to share my depression story online. 

I shared my words with the world because they mattered. Because my “depression story” was hardly unique — according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), more the 8% of all Americans have a major depressive disorder or persistent depressive disorder (PDD) — and if others were suffering, I was sure others would, and could, relate. I was sure others needed to know they weren’t alone. I was sure others needed help explaining their disease to their families. And I shared my words because I am more than a diagnosis. I am more than an illness.

I shared my words because I finally decided — after 16 years — not to let my depression define me.

And while everyone’s experience with depression is different, and my story may not  be the same as yours, these are the things which helped me most when I wanted to have the conversation — i.e. a conversation with those I loved about my depression and my mental health.

Consider The Conversation Before You Have It

Whether you have struggled with depression for four months or forty years, I can guarantee you already know one thing: depression is fickle, depression is complicated, and it is the nearly impossible to describe. The loss of joy, the loss of hope, and the loss of yourself is nearly impossible to articulate. The pain, sadness, emptiness, loneliness, worthlessness, and rage are almost impossible to explain. However, if you are attempting to explain your depression to another these are the very things they will want to know about. They want to know the “what’s” and “why’s” and “how’s.” So consider the questions they may ask before you have the conversation (if you have time chance and/or time):

  • What is depression?
  • Why are you depressed?
  • How come you can’t just “snap out of it”?
  • Walking helps me when I am depressed. Have you tried…?
  • Don’t I make you happy?
  • Are you in therapy/taking medication?
  • I still don’t understand. You have so much, why are you sad?

You don’t have to the “answer” to any of these questions; in fact, many of these questions are misguided and ill-informed, but they are the questions your loved one or friend is likely to ask. And they aren’t asking them to harm you or be hurtful, they are asking them because they do not understand depression. This is their way of getting to the root of your problem. This is their way of trying to help. (At least in most cases.) So while you may not have the right answers, attempting to answer these questions will help both them and you because education removes the shame and stigma. 

Share your experience and your story, if you are comfortable doing so (and can find the words) or point them to external resources. Find websites with “depression toolkits” for friends and family. Share stories and quotes from others about this insidious disease — Google search “depression feels like,” I guarantee you will find something you can share. Locate books designed to educate and inform. And have the initial conversation in a way in a way which makes you most comfortable. 

Explain That Nothing “Caused” Your Depression, And No One Can “Fix It”

One of the biggest misconceptions about depression is that it is caused by something (death, divorce, job loss, etc). However, while these types of external events can trigger a depressive episode or intensify the symptoms of depression, depression is a serious medical illness “caused by a combination of genetic, biological…and psychological factors.” What’s more, not only are there no external markers which cause depression, faith cannot cure depression. Love cannot cure depression. Fame and fortune cannot cure depression, nor can “happy thoughts.” No amount of love can cure your disease. No one can “fix” you because it is a medical condition.

Besides, you wouldn’t treat cancer with sunshine and smiles, would you?

Share What You Do Need

Knowing what you need can be hard. It can be hard to pinpoint what your heart desires, it can be hard to figure out what you really want, and it can be just as hard to ask for what you need even when you know what that is. (Trust me, this is something I struggle with each and every day.) But what you need doesn’t have to be big or grandiose. Sometimes you need space. Sometimes you need a shoulder to cry on, a friend to eat ice cream with, or a person to talk to. Sometimes you need a hand or a hug. Sometimes you just need to know you are loved.

Whatever it is you need, do not hesitate to ask for it. Nothing is too benign or too trivial. You are not a bother or a baby, and if you have truly supportive friends and/or family — people who really want to follow through when they ask “how can I help” — they will be more than happy to oblige. So let them know if you want them to keep you close and engaged. Let them know if you need help getting out of bed — if you want them to give you a push each day — or let them know you need to step back. You don’t want them to leave you, but you need time to rest and/or sleep. You need time to deal with this episode (because sometimes getting through a depressive episode is all about hanging on and riding it out).

And Finally, Be Patient

I know it can be difficult to be patient when you are in the grips of a depressive episode or when you hear the same well-intentioned but misguided comment for the hundredth time, but it is hard for those not struggling with depression to understand why we can’t just smile. Why we can’t just “snap out of it.” It is hard for them to understand why we can’t just act and function “normally.” And while I would love to say one conversation will change their perception, the truth is it won’t. Change will not happen overnight because it takes time to understand depression. It takes time to learn the ins-and-outs of this disease. So be patient. Meet their questions as openly and honestly as possible, if you choose. Or send them links to websites and support groups. Give them the resources they need.

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