What is Depression?
Depression is a persistent mood disorder. Your genetics, socio-economic environment and childhood conditioning all contribute to the resiliency of your mental health. For many, the onset of depression occurs after a traumatic life event, such as the death of a loved one, a stressful relationship or breakup, a job loss or financial strain. It is one of the most common mental health disorders that adults and children cope with globally. Some will experience the symptoms firsthand. However, many will do so from watching a loved one cope with it.
Even under optimal circumstances, relationships require hard work. Consequently, helping a loved one with depression can make the relationship that much more difficult. You could end up judging or undermining your loved one’s feelings when they might already be going through a hard time. Or, you might expect your partner to take a pill and “fix” the depression. Unfortunately, neither of these responses is adequate. Helping a loved one with depression requires you to proactively explore the impact it has on both of you.
Recognizing Signs of Depression in your Loved One
Signs and symptoms of depression can vary from one individual to another. You might find it helpful to recognize some of them in your partner. Severe depression symptoms cannot be “fixed” by family members and peers, no matter how supportive you are. Your partner may require professional help, even medication, to help them climb out of the despair from within. If you can establish that your loved one might have depression, it will allow you to compassionately address the problems you are having without causing harm or creating pain and permanent ruptures between you.
The American Psychological Association highlights three areas of wellbeing that you will want to make note of:
Have you noticed a change in your partner’s sleep habits? Perhaps they are sleeping more than normal or less? Do they wake up frequently with nightmares? Has their appetite increased or decreased significantly? All of these could be signs that point to your loved one having depression.
One of the most common symptoms in people who suffer from depression is persistent sadness. They may also feel powerless, hopeless or be burdened with guilt. Alternatively, they may display an absence of emotion and an unmistakable “flatness” in their demeanour. Pay specific attention to how your loved one is doing emotionally, to determine if depression might be the underlying cause.
The manner in which your partner processes their thoughts might also give you a clue to the state of their mental health. Here, you should look out for an inability to concentrate on tasks or a consistent negative disposition about common issues, where they see the glass half empty instead of half full. Your partner may take on blame for all their problems, and lack interest in hobbies that they previously held dear.
If your loved one exhibits any of these symptoms in growing severity, and if it has started interfering with a harmonious existence at home and work, then you might want to encourage them to get diagnosed by a professional.
Helping Your Loved-one Cope With Depression
Depression can impede a person’s ability to proactively deal with their illness. And this is often the biggest challenge with helping a loved one with depression. Even after you suspect depression as the underlying cause, find sources of help and provide them with the information, they may simply not have the motivation to do anything about it. Your role here must still remain one of support to find a way to encourage them to seek help.
One of the most effective ways to support a loved one with depression is to offer them a safe space to express their feelings. You maintain the role of listening with compassion. Let them speak freely without interruptions, advice or displays of judgement. Try not to jump into problem-solving mode too quickly and know that your loved one does not need to hear clichés like “try to look on the bright side!” They may simply not be capable of doing this.
Conversation Starters to Help a Loved One with Depression
Use these conversations as a forum to gently, but firmly broach the subject of their mental health and the need for treatment. You may in fact require multiple discussions before your partner feels ready to act.
Here are examples of conversation starters you can use:
- “I notice that you have been feeling tired recently. Is everything OK?”
- “I sense something is going on. Please let me know how I can be helpful to you.”
- “Would you like help with your tasks? I am more than happy to help you.”
- “What do you think about setting up an appointment with the family doctor to explore this?”
- Sometimes even a ‘general’ statement can be helpful to initiate conversation. For example, “I care about you very much. I am always here for you.”
Even after your partner agrees to get help, remember that recovering from depression takes time. It is a slow process that will require more of your patience. Consequently, you will find it very helpful to check your own expectations to keep them realistic. As professionals, we can attest to the power of unconditional love, support and a listening ear. All of them go a long way in helping a loved one with depression.
Looking After Yourself
Often, when one person takes on a caregiver role to a loved one with depression, they end up forgetting about their own needs. This is a tough task, indeed. You may experience frustration, uncertainty, secondary trauma from their experience and even fatigue. You may find yourself harbouring resentment and frustration towards your partner. All of these are perfectly normal responses for the task at hand.
Of course, you want your partner to get better quickly. Watching them in turmoil isn’t easy. Disconnection, lack of physical intimacy and communication problems can leave you deeply unhappy. This is when you must become mindful of the signals your mind and body send you. You cannot let burnout and compassion fatigue leave you spent and helpless, impeding your own mental health.
If you have reached this point, then connect with a therapist for a few sessions on how you can set boundaries for yourself. You should have no shame or guilt in feeling you cannot give your partner more. Boundaries do not equate to abandonment. Rather, they indicate a healthy recognition of your limits and need for replenishment, so your own coping mechanism does not get depleted. You cannot help your loved one running on empty.
Most of all, remember that you are not your loved one’s therapist. The best scenario to work out in such circumstances is for your loved one with depression to get professional help, so you can then support them within your relationship.
Research assistance for this blog was provided by Yasaman Haghighat, Counselling Psychology Intern. Beaches Therapy Group is proud to support our industry with internship opportunities that offer the next generation of therapists exposure to practical real-world experience. Learn more about therapy sessions at reduced rates with our interns.