Updated: Jun 8, 2020
Standing on the side lines when our partner is battling depression can seem like a helpless, even hopeless, experience. We can feel confused, frustrated, and overwhelmed.
We may feel like every attempt we make to support our partner is either rejected or ignored. It’s common to even feel somehow responsible for our partner’s depression. If this is you, you are not alone.
Depression is an isolating illness that will probably negatively impact on our relationships leaving us feeling helpless and afraid because our depressed partners seem not to care about finding joy in the things that once made them seem happy.
When we have a partner with depression, they may seem sad, hopeless, discouraged or down. But what’s also common is they may also be angry, have angry outbursts and blame others for their state of mind.
All of these factors can make it difficult to know how to help our depressed partner. But our support is vital because, although we can’t fix our partner’s depression, we can help them along the road to recovery.
What Is Depression?
Here’s how I described depression in my book ‘Beat Depression And Reclaim Your Life’
“Depression is described in the dictionary as being ‘low in spirit; downcast’. What it actually feels like is a cloud of lead particles, which settle on the soul. It is the heaviest weight you can feel. It is also the most stubborn of feelings, which can drive people to insanity. It sears the very essence of us and dirties our vision. It has the lightness of a gas cloud but the weight of a concrete overcoat. It seeps into every crevice of our being.
When we are depressed we can’t be bothered with our own potential. We can’t lift our heads enough to see that we have true value in the world. We cannot give ourselves in close relationships because we become absent in the company of those we love. We care less about how we look or we overdo it when we go out to act as a mask to the world. We stumble through our day trying to find some meaning to the feelings that ravage us. We lose our motivation to pursue our true vocation and in doing so, compromise our soul on the way.
We feel like victims – buffeted by the rough winds of life. We can’t grasp onto anything solid in order to pull ourselves out of the storm. Either we see nothing but unfairness or we stoop to martyrdom and believe we deserve nothing better. We have lost our sense of reason and we are unable to take an objective view on our circumstances and address what is fact and what is fiction.’
Of course depression isn’t static and people can experience very good days, even a few good days in a row, only to experience a significantly depressed mood once again. There is an ebb and flow to depression that isn’t always understood by others.
Depression can include:
Feelings of sadness
Weight gain or loss
Fatigue when even small tasks can require extra time
Feelings of worthlessness
Possible frequent thoughts of death
Doctors decide that the essential indicator of a major depressive disorder is a period of at least two weeks during which there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure.
8 Tips That Might Help Our Partner With Depression
1. Acknowledge The Depression
An important first step in helping our partner is to understand that they are depressed. Although this may seem obvious, a depressed person may not realise they’re suffering from depression and putting a name to their low mood could help. It would also be helpful to ‘normalize’ it by saying something like – it’s very common, let’s look for some support for you or this won’t last forever.
2. Ask And Listen
Certainly we can use open-ended questions to encourage them to talk about how they’re feeling like:
I’ve noticed you’ve been quiet and I wonder if there’s something troubling you?
It seems that you’ve lost interest in going out recently; what can I do to help?
More than anything, when someone suffering from depression talks about it, they want someone to listen.
Listening with empathy is the most useful way to lean in and support the person at that moment.
Empathic listening is a way of listening and responding to another person that will improve our mutual understanding. It enables us to listen intently and accurately interpret our depressed partner’s thoughts.
Empathetic listening builds trust and respect, better enables our partner to release their emotions and creates a safe environment that is conducive to helping them find support and can have a profound impact on our relationship.
3. Be Present
Sometimes we run around trying to ‘fix’ the depression or sort out professional but often the best thing we can do for your partner is simply show up.
We don’t have all the answers, which is OK, but what we can do is sit and listen, hold our partner’s hand, offer hugs and just be there. We may respond with loving statements like:
“Tell me what I can do to help.”
“You are important to me.”
“I am here for you.”
“We will get through this together.”
4. Encourage Them To Get Some Treatment
For some people, depression symptoms are severe enough to cause problems. We may notice how their in daily happenings are hindered like work, school, social activities or relationships.
Some partners may not recognize that they have depression and not understand their symptoms, thinking that this is something they have to endure. Some partners will think they have to grin and bear it but, honestly, depression seldom improves without treatment. You may gently point out their symptoms by sharing what you’ve noticed, express concern, Share what you’ve learnt about depression and tell them we can help them get the right treatment whether that’s changing their lifestyle, talking therapies or medication. We can suggest we’ll be there during appointments.
5. Create A Healthy Foodie Home
We didn’t cause it. And we can’t fix it. But, we can support them while they go through the depression cycle. And this includes practical steps we can do at home.
Food affects our mood. That’s the bottom line! We all know that when we are depressed comfort eating is sometimes the only answer.
However, Certain foods can exacerbate depression.
So, if our partner’s too depressed to help themselves, this is one area where we can put some good eating habits in place - in the kitchen.
Nutritious foods can protect our mental health. Although no single nutrient or eating plan can cure depression, good overall nutrition is essential for our mental well being. Eating foods that are rich in essential vitamins, minerals, complex carbohydrates, protein, and fatty acids is key to keeping your brain in good working order.
So How Should You Set Up A Good Eating Plan For A Partner With Depression?
Firstly it’s worth ourselves taking a step towards healthy eating and thereby encouraging our partner to do the same. It’s actually quite simple because when someone is depressed, they’re not even thinking about cooking so when a meal is put in front of them, often they will just eat it.
To do this, planning ahead is the key. Shop accordingly so that it is clear what you’re going to cook and eat together. It becomes second nature, almost clinical, to get out the food that’s been prepared earlier. Make sure the basics are there but include goodies and treats too; it doesn’t want to be too boring.
You may find your partner has got into a cycle which goes round and round i.e. not caring what they put in their mouth, feel worse and then care even less. But, partners may feel much better about themselves when they eat well.
Eating junk is part of the self-perpetuating abuse that they might indulge in when they have little self-worth. It’s easier to fall into the victim mentality when they don’t look after themselves and then blame everyone else for not looking after them. Changing what they eat is a tiny but important step towards beating depression.
Sometimes just being aware of the link between feeling awful and that eating pattern can be enough to spur them into action. So long as they have that awareness, the seed will germinate and grow in time. It maybe worth pointing this out in a subtle and gentle way.
Practically, I generally find that following these two rules I can keep the focus on good food:
1. Five portions of fruit and vegetables a day
2. Eat three meals a day and nothing in between.
It’s a no brainer, and easy to keep up.
Here’s my one food tip – soups! And homemade is best.
A great recipe which is simple and quick is:
1. Soften 1 onion and two sticks of celery in a pan with some olive oil.
2. Add 1 tin tomatoes, 1 tablespoon tomato puree, 2 cloves garlic, 1 tin cannellini beans and a pint of stock.
3. Simmer for 30 minutes then add herbs to taste (oregano is lovely).
4. Add grated cheese to serve if you wish.
This soup is nutritious and comforting and hits the spot every time.
6. Exercise together
Daily exercise will boost their mood. Plan a daily walk or bike ride to inspire getting back to exercise.
7. Grab Their Interest
Make plans together. Depression causes a loss of interest in activities we once loved. To that end, depressed people sometimes avoid social interactions. Make a weekly date to rent a movie, go for a hike, or even play board games. Start small to help your partner begin socializing again.
8. Focus On Small Goals
Depression can be overwhelming and when you have a partner with depression, even getting out of bed can seem like a monumental task.
You can help your partner by setting and acknowledging small targets and daily successes. Breaking down larger tasks into smaller tasks can help your partner take small steps toward returning to normal daily activities. Writing lists can help your partner focus on managing their tasks.
Even writing a list in order of tasks can help e.g.
Focus on getting up
Take a shower
Make a plan for the day
Get a coffee
Start the first item on the list
You will need to be very patient and understanding when working through a depressive episode. Caring for a partner with depression can be emotionally draining and it’s important to practice self-care and increase your own support network during this time.