I went through a really bad bout of clinical depression in college. I don’t talk about it much — not because I’m trying to hide some dark secret of my past, just because people generally don’t talk about mental illness much. But silence only perpetuates the stigma surrounding mental health, so I am determined to start sharing more. One (of many) not great parts of being depressed is not being able to help those who are trying to help you. I had friends, teammates, family, and others who wanted to help me, but didn’t know how. And I didn’t know how they could help me either. Obviously, this led to frustration on multiple accounts, and even severed some friendships. In the magic of hindsight, I can reflect upon what did and didn’t help me. There was one thing that was said (a lot) that was so unhelpful I wanted to share it, and offer some alternate phrases. I understand people who said it had good intentions, but, if you know someone suffering from depression, I encourage you to reconsider using this phrase:
“It could be worse.”
A few reasons I detest this phrase, along with (hopefully) helpful alternatives:
1. It is a promise for worse things to come, which is exactly the opposite of what a depressed person (or any person) needs. I’m having trouble getting out of bed in the morning. I’m struggling to perform basic tasks, and feeling more and more alone with each passing day. I may even be considering taking my own life. I’m constantly reminding myself I don’t matter, and that no one would miss me. And you’re here to tell me it could be WORSE than this all-consuming fire of self-hate ruining my outlook on life and prospects for the future? Because, I one-hundred percent can’t handle even a little bit of “worse” right now. If I fail this quiz, or get a parking ticket, or feel left out one more time, I am worried about how I’m going to react. I don’t need “worse.”
Alternative phrase I found infinitely more helpful: “It will get better.”
2. It is dismissive and belittles the current issue. “Oh, you’re suffering from clinical depression? Well, you don’t have AIDS or ebola or brain cancer or a torn ACL, do you? Come to me when you have a more real problem.”
A daunting part of mental illness is that people don’t really take your issue seriously. It’s like the whole world is subconsciously suggesting (and probably hoping) that maybe you’re not actually depressed, and you’re just a drama queen. “It could be worse” furthers that notion. You’re not on crutches, you don’t have a cast, you don’t have a constant exterior indicator of your disease, so people doubt if you really have the disease at all.
Another thing to say instead, which I always found helpful: “Hey, I like you.”
3. It’s insulting to my intelligence. I’m depressed, not stupid. I understand that I was born to a middle-class white family in the United States of America. I understand thousands of children every year are born in the slums of India, in active war zones, or even in the ghettos of our own nation. I was not one of those children. I know I am physically capable. I’m not in a wheel chair, I’m not blind, I have all my limbs. I’m even a college athlete! I know I am fortunate. I understand I am incalculably lucky to have the opportunity to be going to a prestigious University. I’m not a moron. But how lucky my circumstances are isn’t relevant right now to the constant song of “you’re not good enough” that’s playing in my head.
If anything, reminding someone who is depressed about how privileged they are can actually backfire and make them feel worse. It led me to an increased amount of “What’s wrong with me?” questioning, which, for the record, was a question I was already asking myself hundreds of times a day.
The truth is, clinical depression is generally not an outcome of external factors; it’s an internal battle. Pointing out any inherent advantages of the depressed person is irrelevant.
You don’t go up to a cancer patient and say, “At least you’re rich!” or to someone who just tragically lost a family member and say, “Thank goodness you weren’t born in a poverty-stricken third-world country!”
On an even smaller scale, you don’t go up to an athlete who just lost a close, important basketball playoff game and say “Aren’t you glad you didn’t get injured out there on the court tonight?”
Please have the same courtesy when addressing someone suffering from a mental illness. By saying “it could be worse,” you’re pointing out something that is, yes, objectively true, but also, completely irrelevant and insensitive. The last thing you want is for your friend, colleague, or family member who is suffering from depression to feel worse.
There are better ways to help people put things in perspective, and sometimes a smile, invitation to get dinner, hand written card, or just listening ear can really make a difference. Just please err on the side or promising things will eventually get better, rather than commenting on how their situation could worsen.