Talking about Depression

Understanding mental health

Illustration of Worker Down Spiral Staircase

We all feel down and experience changes in our moods from time to time, but depression is complex and serious. People with depression may experience negative thoughts and feelings intensely and for longer periods of time.

In Australia, depression is not uncommon, affecting as many as 1 in 7 people in their lifetime. Chances are, you will know several people with either diagnosed or undiagnosed depression. By understanding and talking about this, we can help friends, family, colleagues and others in our society who experience depression. It is important to know that talking about depression does not make the situation worse. In fact, conversations that help to bring awareness and support for depression, are a positive thing. Individually, we can support someone who is experiencing depression by learning to recognise the signs, showing empathy, reducing stigma and offering support.

What is depression?

Depression is a diagnosable illness where a person experiences sadness, lack of pleasure, irritation or negative thinking most of the time. It can seriously affect a person’s mental and physical wellbeing. Depending on its severity, it can also impact a person’s participation in relationships, work, education and the social aspects of life. For some, it can be a debilitating, long-term struggle. Others may overcome depression over a shorter timeframe, with the right supports.

Depression can affect people from all walks of life. There are several different factors that can impact the causes and severity of depression. These include life events, lifestyle, physical health, genetics, and personality. Just like any other illness, depression is not the fault of the person experiencing it. As with someone experiencing a physical illness, they deserve compassion, respect and access to support.

Experts in medicine and psychology continue studying depression to better understand it and improve treatments including talk therapies, medications, complementary therapies and lifestyle changes. The treatments that work for some people, may not work for others. It’s important that a person experiencing mental illness find the right mix of care and supports for their situation.

For many who experience it, depression can remain misunderstood by those around them. Worrying about stigma can stop a person from sharing their experiences or even from getting the help they need. You can play a role in improving the situation – by supporting someone experiencing depression.

Recognising depression

Depression can affect people in many different ways. It can include a combination of physical, cognitive and behavioural symptoms. You might first notice a difference in the way a person is behaving and in their moods. If these changes happen over an extended period of time (weeks for example), then it could point to depression.

Signs of depression include:

  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in things that they used to enjoy or care about
  • Withdrawal from others – socially, emotionally or physically
  • Withdrawal from activities– dropping out of or avoiding things that they used do routinely
  • ‘Low’ or sad moods or demeanour
  • Lack of energy, tiredness and seeming lethargic
  • Changes to sleep patterns e.g. sleeping too much or experiencing insomnia
  • Changes in appetite, which may lead to changes in body shape or weight
  • Movement changes – unusual body language, slow movements, or unsettled movements
  • Expression of feelings such as guilt or worthlessness
  • Talking about negative thoughts or feelings
  • Difficulty concentrating, focusing or making decisions
  • Expressing that they feel sad, dark, blue, down, low or depressed (words may vary)
  • Unhealthy levels of alcohol consumption or reliance on other drugs
  • Seeming to ‘just be struggling’ or ‘not coping’ with aspects of life
  • Thinking or talking about death or suicide

If someone you know begins behaving or talking in a way that seems out of character or worrying, it is worth taking note and having a conversation with them.

What can I do to help someone who is depressed?

Discussing someone’s mental health does not need to be daunting. Remember, you will not make matters worse by talking about your concerns for someone’s wellbeing. Talking can make things better. By expressing genuine concern and being open to conversation, you can go a long way to making someone with depression feel supported. You don’t have to be able to fix all of the problems, but you can make a difference.

Simple ways to be supportive:

  • Show empathy: Showing concern lets the person know you care. You can try phrases like “What you are going through must be difficult”, or “that sounds really hard.”
  • Be respectful: Show respect for the person’s privacy and autonomy. They may or may not want to share details about their depression with you. You should respect their ability to make decisions about their own wellbeing.
  • Offer support: Ask the person how you can help. It may not always feel like it, but simply being a safe and approachable part of the person’s support network, can be helpful.

Some ways you can support are:

  • Asking the person about their feelings and experiences.
  • Being an active listener (listening to understand not just respond).
  • Acknowledging and validating their experience.
  • Being available if they need someone they can talk to.
  • Offering hope and positivity about their future and recovery journey.
  • Offering gentle social support – e.g. a cup of tea and a chat or going for a walk.
  • Being realistic in your expectations of the person.
  • Understanding that depression is complex and that recovery can be a challenge.
  • Offering suggestions for where to seek professional help (if they are receptive and haven’t accessed formal support).

Professional support for depression

If depression lasts for longer than two weeks or is impacting a person’s safety or ability to function, then professional help is recommended. People with mental illness are more likely to seek help if someone they know suggests it. Help the person to realise that seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of, and that it will be a positive step towards recovery. You could suggest some of the following options:

  • General practitioner
  • Psychologist
  • Helpline (e.g. Lifeline)
  • Employee Assistance Program (EAP)

If the person has sought help but not been happy with the outcome, then encourage them to try again until they find something that works for them.

What doesn’t help:

  • Judgements: Your judgements about the person’s circumstances, symptoms or recovery can be harmful. Comments and ideas such as “It’s not that bad”, “You’re over-reacting” or “You seem okay to me” are not helpful. Remember that you cannot truly understand everything a person is thinking, feeling or experiencing.
  • Being dismissive: Dismissing, minimising or over-simplifying someone’s concerns does not make them go away. Saying things like “It’ll be fine” or “Snap out of it” is not going to ‘fix’ their depression. Depression is a complex illness and needs proper supports.
  • Ignoring it: Simply ignoring someone’s depression does not make it go away. You might think you are helping by avoiding or changing the subject, as it can seem too difficult or confronting. People with depression will likely need a mix of supports to recover.

Stigma and depression

The stigmatising attitudes of others, or even self-stigma, are commonly experienced by people with depression. These attitudes and the associated discrimination can make depression harder to deal with and prevent a person from getting the help they need. Despite efforts to improve discussions and systems around mental health in Australia, stigma still exists. It is a combination of ignorance, misinformation and prejudice.

We all have a role in helping to address stigma relating to mental health problems. We can make a difference by choosing to have open conversations about issues such as depression. We should be careful with the language we choose to use. Words, ideas or expectations that portray a person with depression as “lazy”, “selfish”, “faking”, “weak” or “crazy” are damaging. Help the person to focus on the fact that they are experiencing a real illness and they can recover.

What next?

  • If the person doesn’t want help: You might be in a position to explore why and to discuss this with them. Perhaps you could recommend a better avenue for support if the person has had a previous bad experience. You should also respect the person’s right to privacy and autonomy. Unless you believe they are a risk of harming themselves or others, then the decisions are theirs to make.
  • If you are both happy with the connection: If the person is receptive to your support and you are comfortable to provide it, then keeping the discussion open could be an important contribution to their recovery. Depression can be a long-term struggle, so having allies who understand and offer support is important. Let them know if you are okay with being a contact when they need to talk. You should not be expected to take on this burden alone or put yourself at risk. Establish boundaries that work for you and the other person. Remind them about the professional services available.
  • If it’s taking a toll on you: Caring for someone with depression can be overwhelming and may bring up negative thoughts and feelings. Practice self-care for your own wellbeing. Keep yourself safe from harm, and seek appropriate help and support if you need to talk to someone. 
  • If the person is a risk of harm to them self or others: If a person expresses suicidal intent or harmful thoughts or behaviours you may need to take necessary protective action. This is also the case if you think the person may be a threat to others around them. Options are included below.


If life is in immediate danger call 000 (or 112 on mobile phone)

For Suicide Call Back Service call 1300 659 467


Understanding how to talk about mental health is an important skill. Many people feel uncomfortable and unprepared and this can mean the conversation never starts at all. Mental Health First Aid courses teach you how to recognise the signs and symptoms of mental health problems or a crisis such as thoughts of suicide. You’ll gain the confidence to give the most effective support you can and when and how to access professional help.

A conversation could change a life and learning the right skills can make the difference.

Click below to learn more about our full range of courses.

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