Communication: What ‘To Say’ And ‘Not To’ Say To A Depressed Man

“What is the most important thing you can do for a depressed husband, father, or son? Without a doubt it is to communicate love and acceptance to them with all the power you can muster, and to avoid blaming them or being judgmental about their depression. Your loved one has not chosen to be depressed. If he could, he would gladly give it up. Disappointing as this truth may be, try to accept his depression in your life with grace.” (Unmasking Male Depression by Archibald Hart, pp. 227)

After my last post on male depression I have been receiving a steady stream of questions from people about what to do if a male they know is depressed (their husband, father, son, friend, etc.). Keep in mind that there is no correct way to go about being with, or communicating with someone who is depressed. Each person’s experience of depression is very unique to them (though there are very similar characteristics that we could extrapolate). So take the pressure off of yourself to try and fix the situation, because it’s not something you can fix.

One of the places to begin is in how we communicate with a male who is depressed. And again for guidance I lean on some of the suggestions of Archibald Hart. He states that it is helpful to keep some of these guidelines in mind:

  • “Listen to more than words. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to pay too much attention to what is said, and not to what is meant. Depressed men can say some pretty nasty things. They can be mean in what they say, but they don’t necessarily mean what they say.”
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  • “Make time to talk. A depressed man will want to draw back into his shell. He will certainly not be the one to initiate talking-so be prepared to do it. Set aside a particular time so that he won’t be taken by surprise (say over dinner), then allow him not to talk if that is what he wants.”
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  • “Try to listen more than talk. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for your depressed loved one is listen. Romans 12:5 tells us to ‘weep with them that weep’ and listening is as good as, if not better than, our biggest tears.”
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  • “Try to reflect back what he is saying. Often what someone says or doesn’t say is not what they really want to say.”
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  • Be sensitive to how his ego has been affected. The male ego is a powerful thing. It will have already been damaged by the depression, so don’t damage it anymore.”

One of the communication skills that I like to experiment in therapy with couples can be helpful in a situation such as this. First, mark a time on the schedule where you both agree to talk. For the person who wants to talk this scheduling alleviates some anxiety, confusion, and wondering about whether or not time to talk will ever take place. And for the man who is reticent about talking, it frees him up from being hounded to talk, and from being surprised by an impromptu talk at the wrong moment. Second, put time constraints on the conversation. For example, bring a timer to the conversation and set it for 15 minutes. Knowing how long the talk will be may relieve the pressure a depressed man feels about talking. It also keeps a boundary around the conversation so that it doesn’t start to “rabbit trail” in a variety of non-helpful and even painful directions. Third, in the allotted time given (better to start small, 5-15 minutes and build when he is ready to talk more), use the space to allow him to talk about how he is feeling (say 2-3 minutes). And then reflect back what you heard (say 2-3 minutes). And then allow him to affirm whether or not you understood him correctly (2-3 minutes). Done. No trying to solve the depression for him. No trying to fix it for him. See this short time of connection as a building block to future health.

In closing, I am going to cite some statements by Archibald Hart concerning what are helpful and not helpful things to say to a depressed man:

“The Best Things You Can Say To The Depressed Man In Your Life” (pp. 231)

  • “I love you and always will because you are important to me.”
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  • “I can’t really feel what you are feeling, but I want to understand.”
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  • “The best I can offer you right now is to be your friend.”
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  • “You don’t have to apologize for the way you feel, because I know you can’t really control it.”
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  • “You are not alone in this; I will stay by you until it’s over.”
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  • “This won’t last forever, and when it’s over we’ll sing God’s praises together.”
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  • “God isn’t causing this. He wants to help you bear it.”
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  • “Some of God’s greatest servants have also suffered from depression-and God helped them through it.”

Those are some things that Hart feels would be helpful things to say. Again, you know the depressed man in your life better than anyone, so you will need to weigh those statements and take in to consideration if they would be helpful or not. Depending where I was in a depression, I would find some of the statements above helpful, and others not so much.

Hart continues:

“The Worst Things You Can Say To The Depressed Man In Your Life” (pp. 235)

  • “Get your life together; you are a man and can control yourself if you try.”
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  • “God isn’t pleased with your life at the moment. Maybe you have unforgiven sin.”
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  • “Stop feeling so sorry for yourself and just try a little harder.”
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  • “I don’t know how much more of this I can take. You are driving me crazy.”
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  • “Remember that there are many people in this world who are worse off than you.”
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  • “I’m beginning to think that it was a mistake for me to marry you.”
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  • “You should stop seeing those quacks and taking those pills because they’re changing your brain.”
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  • “Believe me, I know how you feel because I was depressed once and I didn’t make a meal of it.”

I pretty much can’t imagine where any of the statements above would be helpful at any time.

If you are a man suffering from depression I encourage you to get help from a professional counselor. And if you know a male suffering from depression, I encourage you to walk alongside of that person during this difficult journey and to help them get the resources and professional help that they need.

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Rhett Smith
I'm a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Associate (MDiv, MSMFT, LMFT-A) and pastor to youth and families. I write about the relationships between psychology, theology and technology.