Michelle* will never forget the first time her fiancé mentioned he was having suicidal thoughts. As they cuddled on the couch for their weekly reality TV binge session, he began to vividly describe sitting on their king sized bed, downing multiple bottles of pills with posthumous penned letters to loved ones stacked neatly nearby on their nightstand. Too shaken to react and too uninformed to offer advice, she listened cautiously as her husband-to-be recounted exactly how he planned to end his life.
We’ve all been a listening ear, advisor, welcomed distraction or comedic relief to someone reeling from a bad day, but what happens when a crappy day becomes plural, morphing into something more. With depression affecting approximately 14.8 million Americans annually according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, the odds are unfortunately in our favor that someone we love will suffer from the crippling disorder. From knowing when to listen, when to leave alone and when to seek professional help, here are a few tips on loving a significant other with and through depression.
1. Know the signs.
Depression can manifest itself in a number of ways; the key is to decipher moody moments from actual red flags. “We all get sad but when it’s pervasive and going on for quite a while, then it’s becoming something more,” said Elana Clark-Faler, LCSW, CSAT-S, Clinical Director of Recovery Help Now, Inc.
Common symptoms of depression include insomnia, loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable, withdrawal, under or overeating, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating and suicidal thoughts and attempts. For Michelle’s fiancé, signs included isolation from family and friends, lack of productivity at work, and negative thinking.
“Major loss such as the death of a close friend or relative can trigger depression, which is pretty typical, and lasts for roughly 3 – 6 months,” Faler said. “If someone is staying in that depressed state for longer you may be looking at an actual problem that needs professional treatment.”
2. Understand that depression is not a choice.
When it comes to depression, a little empathy can go a long way. While a tough love, come to Jesus moment may seem like the best approach, pushing your significant other to “just snap out of it” isn’t always the best route. “Depression is an illness not a choice,” said Traci Turner, M.A., mental health clinician. “[Most people] do not choose to be in so much turmoil that they can no longer function normally in their jobs, hobbies or relationships. No one chooses this illness. Situations, events, genetics and traumatic life experiences are often the cause.”
3. Don’t be the hero.
While it can be tempting to bear the burden of rescuing your partner from their depressed state, leave the heavy lifting to the professionals. Individual or couples therapy, counsel from a spiritual advisor or even rallying family and friends for help can lessen the feeling that it’s your responsibility to fix your partner.
“It’s not your job to get someone out of their depression, that’s what the therapist is there for,” Faler said. “It is important to share with your partner how their actions or non-actions are impacting you and your relationship. You can’t pull a horse to water but what you can do is let them know how their isolation is affecting you, and that you are here for them.”
4. Know when to pry and when to pull back.
Isolation and separation from the outside world can quickly become the norm when depressed. As a key piece of your partner’s support system, encouraging conversation or a fun activity may be a welcomed distraction from their pain. It’s also important to remember this likely will not be a long-term solution for major depression. While a listening ear or a break in routine may provide temporary relief, you don’t want to overwhelm or emotionally suffocate your partner or spouse.
“In all cases, it is important to respect your partner’s space and boundaries,” Turner said. “It is also very important to intervene when someone’s condition is deteriorating, meaning they aren’t eating, taking their medication or becoming suicidal.”
5. Don’t let your partner’s depression consume you.
While it can be tempting to shift all of your emotional attention to your partner, the impact can be draining. Sticking to everyday routines such as meditation, working out, spending time with friends, or even finding a support group, will offer a much-needed emotional getaway.
“The key is to set firm, assertive boundaries and to stick to them,” Turner said. “A part of not becoming consumed and pulled into [your partner’s] black hole is knowing when to [loosen your hold]. You maintain your happiness by maintaining your own boundaries.”
6. Don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions.
Asking someone outright if they’re depressed or are feeling suicidal may seem like an awkward question, but approaching the topic head-on is a must. For Michelle, it was a matter of life and death. “
I made it a point to start an open dialogue with my fiancé about his feelings and discuss options for treatment,” she said. “After going to a few sessions of couples therapy, I learned just how close he was to ending his own life if I hadn’t stepped in. That’s a haunting feeling to have.”
“A lot of people don’t want to hurt their partner’s feelings or are uncomfortable discussing the topic so they avoid direct confrontation,” Faler said. “Avoidance isn’t an option here. Not talking about [depression] is how people kill themselves, and as loved ones it’s our job to help prevent that.”