Recognizing a Partner with Depression
Six months ago, Michael’s mother Gabby died within just three weeks of being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Michael had always been close to his mother, a single parent, and the suddenness of her death devastated him.
Michael’s partner, Rob, understood that it would take a while for Michael to grieve properly and come to terms with his mother’s death. Rob took care of the funeral arrangements, listened attentively whenever Michael wanted to talk, and helped his partner in any way possible to get through the ordeal.
Yet months passed without Michael showing any let-up in his grief. Rob returned to work after taking a month off. Michael tried to return to work but managed to remain on his job only a few days before having a breakdown. Michael’s doctor prescribed antidepressants and grief counseling. After a few counseling sessions, Michael said the counseling sessions weren’t helping and stopped going. But he did continue taking an antidepressant.
While Rob was at work, Michael spent the day watching Netflix, dozing on the couch, and eating junk food. Since Michael napped so much during the day, he was often up at night, sitting in the dark watching television, eating potato chips, and drinking soda.
Rob tried to talk to Michael about restarting counseling sessions or returning to work part-time but Michael said he “wasn’t ready” and frequently became combative and angry. One night, Michael became so agitated at Rob that he threw a drink at him and threatened to commit suicide. Rob almost called emergency services but decided not to when Rob calmed down and eventually fell asleep.
By this point, what Rob did not know was that Michael’s grief had spiraled into “major depression,” a serious mental illness that does not resolve without professional treatment. Extremely worried about Michael’s mental state, Rob began researching “depression” and the normal grief process. Was Rob just experiencing a lengthy grieving period? When does grief turn into major depression? What should he know about how to help a partner with depression?
Identifying Depression in a Spouse or Partner
Rob learned through Internet searches that Michael’s behavior presented classic signs of depression. In addition to persisting longer than two or three weeks, depression is clinically diagnosed when someone exhibits at least five of the following symptoms:
- Depressed mood every day
- Sleeping too much/insomnia
- Appetite changes/weight gain or loss/binge-eating
- Apathy/fatigue/lack of motivation to do anything
- Anhedonia (inability to take pleasure in hobbies or activities they previously enjoyed)
- Neglecting personal hygiene
- Stating they feel guilty, worthless, hopeless every day
- Episodic crying spells
- Experiencing recurring illnesses due to reduce immune system functioning
- Suicidal ideation/threatening suicide
For Michael to be clinically diagnosed with depression, he would need to visit a psychiatrist or psychologist who would give him one of several depression questionnaires to fill out. In some cases, a person suspected of suffering major depressive disorder may have a series of blood tests performed to rule out physical causes of symptoms.
Supporting a Spouse with Depression
Depression is a real disease that cannot be suddenly stopped by deciding not to be depressed. Causes of depression are complex, involving brain chemicals called neurotransmitters, genetics, and various biopsychosocial factors. Unfortunately, depression remains one of the most misunderstood and downplayed mental illnesses pervasive in society today.
Tips for Helping Your Spouse or Partner Cope with Depression
Never tell them they are “too much” or that you “can’t deal with them” at the moment. Depressed individuals do not believe they are loved or that anybody cares about them. Reinforcing this idea by dismissing them as “moody” or “hard to get along with” should never be said even at the most stressful times. If you need a break from a depressed partner, simply tell them you understand how they feel and that you love them but you need to take a walk, go for a drive, etc., to enjoy some “me” time.
Focus on Positive Things
Try to deflect from negativity whenever possible. Compliment your partner on their hairstyle, attire, or what they cooked for dinner. Be as natural about compliments as possible but don’t go overboard with them. Get them to ride bicycles or take walks with you. Outdoor physical activity has been proven to ease depression symptoms, boost mood, and increase self-esteem.
Make Sure Your Partner is Adhering to Medication Instructions
When your depressed partner begins taking an antidepressant, it may take up to three or four weeks for the medication to start working. If your partner stops taking their antidepressant once the medication has improved their symptoms, their depression can return and worsen. Purchase a pill dispenser with separate containers for each day of the week to help your partner remember to take their medication.
Continue Learning About Depression
The more you learn about depression, the more you will feel in control and assured that you are helping your partner as fully as you can. Good websites for learning about depression include:
Be Alert to Recognizing Worsening Symptoms
Rob misconstrued Michael’s early warning signs of depression as grief. Like a great many people, he had no experience dealing with someone who was experiencing signs of major depression. Additionally, the fact that symptoms of Michael’s depression emerged slowly and in conjunction with grief left Rob unable to distinguish between depression and grief.
Like most mental illnesses, depression does not happen suddenly or overnight. But it’s this imperceptible development of symptoms that often causes a partner to explain their partner’s behavior on the basis of situational occurrences— a new job, a friend moved away, it’s just a “phase,” and so on.
Consequently, it is up to the spouse or partner to take charge of their loved one’s depression. People suffering from depression do not understand what is happening to them. They are often afraid to seek professional help because of the stigma attached to having a mental illness. They may also feel just too overwhelmed and exhausted to seek help themselves.
People living with a partner who has been diagnosed with depression should pay attention to whether they are still taking their medication or if their medication is no longer working. Once a person is diagnosed with major depression, they must usually manage and cope with this disease for the rest of their lives.
Get Help for a Depressed Spouse or Partner
Depression takes many forms. At FHE, our experienced and compassionate psychiatrists and therapists help people with all types of depression, from atypical and psychotic to major, bipolar, and situational depression, to other types. Contact us today to learn how to get help for a spouse or partner.