Stop Saying "Try to Be Positive" to People with Depression

Gillian May

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Years ago, I went through a terrible depression that made my world come to a screeching halt. I had to take a 6 month leave from my job because I could barely get off the couch and was dangerously close to ending things.

I knew there was something deeper calling me to take a much-needed rest while scanning my inner world. A change was on the horizon, but I was terrified. The confusion I felt left me mute and dumb-founded. I knew I was ill and needed help. Of all people, a mental health nurse should be able to get help, right? But no one knew what to say to me. In fact, most people stopped talking to me all together even though I hardly said a word to them.

Those who were in contact with me tried to comfort me with the words, “just try to be positive.”

Everyone has heard these words before. “Try to be positive” seems like the catch-phrase advice for anyone going through a hard time. Most people who say it are trying to be helpful, or they don’t know what to say.

However, “try to be positive” doesn’t work when you’re really in deep water. I’m talking about train-wreck kind of deep water. This is not to derail the efforts of those who care and want to help. But it’s important to know more about the meaning of those words and why they may not be helpful for those coping with tremendous suffering.

Several studies in psychology and nursing discuss the emotional toll of bearing witness to suffering.

For people in a caring role, bearing witness is the key ingredient to helping those in pain transcend their suffering. But it comes at an emotional cost. Witnessing the suffering of others can, in itself, cause trauma as well as ignite old wounds through “trauma countertransference.”

Humans are mostly empathic beings, and as such, we feel others pain. Not only that, if we relate in some way, then the pain of others can bring up our own. Professionals in a position of power are extensively trained so that bearing witness doesn’t impact their professional duties. But what about the general public?

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People everywhere are coping with loved ones who are ill, dying, or living with a debilitating disease. Much has been written about caregiver burnout in those who aren’t professionally trained to deal with bearing witness. Many family caregivers show similar burnout patterns as those who are paid to provide caregiving. It seems that the emotional labor of bearing witness is one of the hardest parts of caring for people who are ill. In the absence of skills to help maintain our emotional well-being when bearing witness, we fall prey to avoidance mechanisms of distraction and shut-down. In particular, studies show that for mental illness, these avoidance mechanisms are often much worse.

Unfortunately, those suffering from mental illness are often kept at arm’s length. This is likely because of the emotional impact that bearing witness has on those around them. Plus, the stigma and confusion around mental illness compound these avoidance mechanisms.

So instead of being comforting, the phrase “try to stay positive” is often said to people to shut them down to minimize the effects of bearing witness.

Most of the time, this is not done consciously. But upon further reflection, the motivations behind the “stay positive” sentiment can reveal themselves.

Staying positive is a balancing act.

You try to be in a place of equilibrium but it doesn’t always work, nor should it. Sometimes it’s downright dangerous to work towards being positive when what you really need, is to look into the dark corners and find what’s hiding. Many times, the quest to stay positive can be used as a cover-up for our truths or to appease others who may be uncomfortable with our pain.

Yet, it is a balance we must strive for when we’re looking for mental well-being.

Reaching to either end of the positivity spectrum has pitfalls. On the one end, is a potential cover-up. On the other, is getting entrenched in, or even addicted to, our own pain. Those who suffer from mental illness struggle with the weight of complexity when trying to find this balance every day.

These truths can’t be denied — suffering from mental illness is hard and so is watching and witnessing it.

And we all agree that the sufferer is having the hardest time with the whole thing. So how do we reconcile these things so that we can be helpful to ourselves and others who are suffering?

What many people don’t realize is that people suffering from mental illness don’t need or want to be fixed by our loved ones.

They also don’t want to be the fly in your ointment when you become uncomfortable with our suffering. Sometimes what we really need is someone who can check in and remind us that people care. When you feel propelled to say “try to be positive,” maybe you can replace it with, “you are loved.” And when you’re in our presence, just “being” there is often enough.

It can be really taxing to watch someone suffering from mental illness. Staying aware of how it’s affecting you is vital. Try to dig in a little deeper to find what triggers you might be experiencing. Most of the time, the reason we want to avoid suffering is that we hate feeling out of control or perhaps it reminds us of our own pain. Or maybe we have already watched someone else suffer in the past, and we can’t bear it again. In any case, connecting to this will go a long way in helping you support yourself and your loved one.

At a time when mental health issues are becoming more common, it’s crucial we understand the tangled web we all weave together.

Remember that 1 in 5 adults is, or has experienced, mental health issues. The fact that we may be triggered by our empathic response to our loved ones suffering is quite likely.

Our words matter, and “try to be positive” may not be the words any of us can bear.

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I'm a former nurse turned freelance writer. I have extensive experience in administration, frontline care, and education in mental health, public health, and geriatrics. However, after 20 years, I needed a change and always wanted to write. I have personal and family experience in mental health and addictions, so I'm passionate about advocacy and education in those areas. I'm also a traveler, photographer, and artist. I funnel all my various expertise into my writing and hope to provide valuable content that is entertaining and educational. Join my email list if you want to read more of my work -


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