How to help your partner through depression
When we swipe right, become ‘Facebook official’, or say ‘I do’, few of us worry about how we’d support our partner if they became depressed. But with as many as 10% of us likely to experience depression in our lifetime, the odds of playing that role are pretty high. ‘There’s a lot of support for people with mental health issues, but what isn’t often recognised is how difficult it is for partners,’ says Dr Chi-Chi Obuaya, consultant psychiatrist at The Nightingale Hospital, London. ‘Yet it’s estimated that around one in five carers of people who have mental health problems develop depression themselves.’ Here’s how to help someone with depression without becoming part of that statistic.
When your partner isn’t interested in sex, lacks enthusiasm and doesn’t seem bothered about what you have to say any more, it’s easy to blame yourself or question your relationship. But depression is an illness like any other, not a reflection on you. The key to knowing how to help someone with depression is understanding what you are dealing with, which means doing your research.
‘Most people recognise low mood as depression, but very low energy and an inability to enjoy previously pleasurable activities are core symptoms, too,’ explains Dr Obuaya. ‘As well as changes in concentration, appetite, libido and sleep. Organisations for carers, such as Carers UK, can be hugely helpful, because they allow you to talk to other people in a similar position, and mental health first aid training can really help your understanding, too.’
Avoid trying to ‘fix it’
‘Our natural inclination is to encourage a loved one when they’re struggling, to gee them up and help them become more motivated, but research shows this kind of “high-expressed emotion” has a negative impact on recovery,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘What people value most is feeling heard and having their feelings validated. There’s something powerful about sitting beside somebody, not trying to find a solution. Hold their hand, give them your attention and listen. Try not to get frustrated when there appears to be an obvious path – like seeing the GP – but they won’t take it. There may be a fear of being hospitalised, the impact on their job or, for parents, concerns about social services being involved. Listen, so you can understand what the barriers are, have patience and show real compassion.’
OK, not selfish, but look after yourself, because you’re shouldering something pretty seismic. If you aren’t taking care of yourself, you can’t take care of them, plus one of the biggest symptoms of depression is feeling like a burden. ‘It’s important to maintain your own sense of wellbeing,’ agrees Dr Obuaya. ‘As well as continuing to enjoy your usual activities, and seeing friends and family, you may benefit from therapy, too.’
All kinds of things are known to be beneficial for depression, from running to keeping a gratitude diary, but it’s important to make suggestions sensitively. ‘Come up with a solution together,’ says Dr Obuaya. Trying joint activities, be that an art class or just walking, can be positive. ‘I’ve had heart-warming examples of people going to things like yoga together and really enjoying it,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘Work out what they might want to do, and join them.
Don’t hide it
Talking to people beyond you and the therapist (if they’re seeing one) can be beneficial, because it broadens their support network. ‘We can live very isolated lives, where we don’t know our neighbours or live close to our families, so there is little opportunity to spread the burden. Peer networks can fill that void now,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘A lot of hospitals have a range of groups run by mental health charities, or based around particular interests, that bring people together. We also encourage people to tap into resources they have in their local community to reduce isolation.’
Communicate like a pro
When someone is suffering with depression and struggles to find any enjoyment in life, strong communication can help. ‘We can all struggle to articulate our needs,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘But by learning some key skills, some of the frustration and disappointment that can arise from misunderstandings can be avoided.’ Here’s what you need to do to help someone with depression: ‘Improve your active listening skills, which includes body language, so show genuine interest, and minimise external distractions. Then, when your partner tells you something, summarise it, and use clarification phrases like, “Can I just check this is what you’re saying?”’
Once you’ve asked someone if they fancy doing something five times, and been rejected, it can be tempting to stop asking, but that’s not the answer. ‘That sense of rejection can be tough, but the danger comes when we suppress how we’re feeling,’ explains Dr Obuaya. ‘Be confident to say, “I’d love you to do this, as it means a lot to me.” But don’t repeatedly tread over old ground; you’re demonstrating you haven’t understood their level of discomfort.’
Little gestures, like running a bath, or leaving a note, can make a difference to your partner’s day. ‘People remember acts of kindness,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘They don’t always need a discussion about the latest thinking on medication for mental health, they need a cup of tea. Often, it’s in those relaxed settings people open up.’
Be a partner, not a parent
While it’s important to offer support, it’s also crucial you let your partner take responsibility for their recovery. ‘It’s a fine balance,’ says Dr Obuaya. ‘While you may need to supervise medication when they are unwell, for example, as they make improvements they will be able to take on more responsibility.’ And when it comes to intimacy, lost libido is both a symptom of depression and a side effect of some antidepressants, so while sex may be off the cards, stay affectionate.
Boost them up
Feeling worthless is a feature of depression, so as a partner it can be help to remind someone how and why you love them. ‘It can be extremely distressing when someone can’t see anything positive about themselves, and your affirmation can help,’ says Dr Obuaya. It’s also useful to talk about the future – with them in it – to show you have faith. ‘Acknowledge their fears and demonstrate empathy, but give them hope.’