There is a great deal of information available about depression. But when you live with a depressed person, it can be painfully difficult. Anti-depressants are the number-one prescribed medication in this country; but they are not a panacea. Many with depression continue to suffer, or at least have periods of symptomatology. This in turn affects those who love them.
It can be especially difficult when the person with depression is your child or a partner. Many parents feel it is their place to rescue even their adult children from these issues. It is difficult to feel helpless, which is often the case when you live with a depressed individual. It may not be healthy to feel it is one’s duty to rescue a partner, and certainly not to take responsibility for his or her feelings. And this does happen often in relationships.
For men who have depressed partners, feeling helpless is especially common. Generally, men are fixers. When they hear of a problem, their reaction is to fix it. But depression is not so easily fixed, therefore the result is helplessness and frustration. This can complicate the helping process.
Difficulties abound when living with a depressed partner. Because of symptoms like apathy, a partner’s needs may not be met. In a relationship, each partner will make attempts to feel love from their partner. These attempts may be thwarted by apathy from the depressive, leaving the partner feeling disconnected. Anhedonia can also contribute to a lack of sex drive, which can further complicate this problem. The end result: The partner feels his or her relationship needs are not important.
Not only might the parent or partner feel helpless in regard to alleviating the loved one's depression, he might feel as if he is a contributor. In fact, because of of distorted thinking, the depressed individual might believe their loved one is a contributor. But even when that is not the case, the parent or partner may experience an internal battle over what to say or not to say. In the case in the previous paragraph, a partner may not express his or her feelings of neglect, fearing they will contribute to the depressed mood of the other. This can further both issues: feeling neglected and feeling like a contributor to the depression.
What is someone living with a depressed person to do? The answer isn’t as simple as many like to believe, because depression manifests differently in different people. According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are nine possible criteria that contribute to a diagnosis of depression, of which five must be met, for the majority of the time:
Markedly diminished pleasure in almost all activities.
Significant weight loss or weight gain when not dieting, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
Psychomotor agitation or retardation.
Fatigue or loss of energy.
Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt.
Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness.
Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation, attempting suicide, or specific planning for suicide.
(Other criteria must also be met for a specific diagnosis)
These criteria can lead to a multitude of other symptoms, including lack of sex drive, angry outbursts, irritability, social / personal withdrawal, and more. People experience different symptoms of depression. As such, one person’s depression might appear much different than another’s.
Many who live with a depressed person struggle with whether they are being supportive or enabling. Some believe “tough love” is what is needed. Being supportive and loving may appear to allow the depressed individual to remain stagnant. Pushing too much can lead to conflict and further withdrawal.
It may seem like a hopeless situation. Still, there are still several things that can be done:
Research depression, and what might be helpful. There are a number of things that are helpful for depression: exercise, meditation, 20 minutes of daily unblocked sunlight, medication, dietary changes, as well as a number of natural remedies. More than just suggesting what can help, the loved one can engage in the new behavior.
Take care of yourself. Whenever someone is dealing with a loved one that has mental illness, it is imperative to engage in or continue self-care. It is possible to balance your needs with your partner’s. Exercise. Do enjoyable things whether your loved one will do it with you or not. Do not allow the depression to darken the entire universe you live in.
Be supportive. Cognitive distortions as well as the lethargy involved in depression lead to negative perceptions and irritability. It is often difficult not to be affected by this, especially if there is anger directed at you. However, it is important to follow the second of the Four Agreements (Ruiz, 1997); don’t take anything personally. It is important to remember that much of what is being directed at you is a result of depression and distortions in perception and thinking. The ability to look at situations in a detached and objective way is at the heart of Eastern thought and psychological growth. Abraham Maslow, who formulated a theory based on a hierarchy of needs, notes it as part of self-actualization. Beck and Ellis (who worked with depressed patients and developed Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Rational Emotive Therapy, respectively) promote it as a strategy for psychological health. Eastern thought looks at compassionate detachment as an enlightened trait to strive for. Compassionate detachment is being able to empathize and feel compassion for another, while not getting drawn into their perception of reality. You do what you can, without attaching expectation to it.
Being supportive also includes, in moderation, gently pushing your loved one to do what is good for him or her. This includes invitations to join in activities, and attempts to get the depressed person involved in exercise or some of the above suggestions demonstrated to help with depression.
Listen. Being heard can be incredibly curative. Communication is how we connect. For many with depression, the feelings of isolation can be deafening. The ability to listen and not offer a quick fix can be of tremendous benefit.
Be love. This may be difficult, and sound corny, but, if you are following the suggestions above, you are already being love. Abraham Maslow suggested most people seek therapy as a result of deficiency in their love and belonging needs (Feist, Feist, & Roberts, p.276). Mood disorders (of which depression and its more chronic form, dysthymia, are a part) are the most common psychiatric diagnosis. If Maslow is correct, love maybe at least part of the solution. As I wrote in “Love’s Tug of War,” putting real love first is difficult due to our own ego needs. But the ability to do so can be incredibly rewarding. In fact, you can use this to move toward your own self-actualization or enlightenment, as it is a vital part of each. Love should be the default strategy when you don’t know what else to do.
Copyright: William Berry 2014
American Psychiatric Association; 2013; The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Feist, J., Feist, G., & Roberts, T.; 2013; Theories of Personality
Ruiz, Miguel; 1997; The four agreements: A practical guide to personal freedom.