I write this from the perspective of living with a partner with severe depression, but know that most of us in a western society have some form of depression as I put forth in Pt.1. I also write this from my own perspective the the healthiest relationships are autonomous, self-responsible, and a mutual and reciprocal give and take. If you haven’t yet read the other pieces in my series on depression this may be a good time as this post is very much so written on-top-of the ideas put forth beginning in Pt.1.
What do we do when someone in our home or life is struggling with depression?
Depression in the Family: Living Under the Same “Emotional Skin”
It’s commonly accepted and even backed up within interpersonal neurobiology that human beings are relational people. As the old saying goes, we’re hurt and healed in relationships. Our environment and relationships have a profound effect on who we are and where we’re going in life. A change in one person's life or functioning is followed by changes in the functioning of others. Check out the work by Murray Bowen or Daniel Siegel for more info.
This is why depression in one family member often triggers changes in feelings, thoughts, and actions in others, which creates specific dynamics and behavioral patterns. This is one reason it is important to be aware of one another’s emotional space, as well as to understand the factors that can cause or contribute to depression.
When a Family Member or Partner Is Suffering from Depression
As a partner or family member of a person suffering from depression, you may feel lost, helpless, even sometimes desperate. And there’s always the possibility that it’s so hard that you’ve avoided your own emotional experience of how it is for you.
Avoidance is the most common coping reaction. Nothing you try seems to help. Despite your commitment and willingness to help, you might feel that your partner's depression is sucking the energy and life out of you.
What you might not realize, however, is that the person suffering from depression doesn’t want to be a burden to their loved ones. They usually feel guilty about their depression and its effect on people around them.
What we typically think of as helpful doesn’t seem to work with depression. Giving suggestions, doing work or chores for them, setting up appointments, or forcing your will upon them. These actually make it worse! It’s quite paradoxical to think that the antidote to depression is an act of remaining with the inner experience of the other.
It’s a difficult position for all family members to be in, and you may all need some support in navigating these emotional waters. It’s time for guidance and clarification concerning this mental health condition.
If you have a partner of family member that’s suffering from depression, this post is for you.
Love is helpful and needed, but it doesn’t have the power to heal the cause of depression. It is, therefore, important for you to set boundaries and protect yourself. From there, you can clearly and thoughtfully offer understanding and compassion, and share your feelings and needs with the depressed person in your life.
Consider suggesting counseling for your loved one. Counseling, from my perspective and experience as both a client and therapist, should only be a helpful thing, but can bring up difficult things to be with. In my experience, it can bring up things that we may not want to deal with or that would feel too challenging.
At the least, seek help for yourself. If your partner is not willing to see a professional, consider talking with a professional who can help you understand the causes and symptoms of your family member’s depression.
While you do need to set personal boundaries,, there is no need to withdraw from the relationship. Ask yourself …
Do these boundaries still serve and support this relationship or do they serve only myself?
Care for Yourself
Just make sure to do something good for yourself. Regularly. See other people, go out with friends, or hang out with other family members.
Stay active. Regular physical exercise can boost your self-esteem, increase optimism, and ease tension.
By taking good care of yourself, you are actually helping the person suffering from depression to feel better. Because only by taking care of your self can you provide the other with much-needed support. As the saying goes, we cannot help others without first taking care of ourselves. There has to be a self lending the help.
Keep in mind that you are not a therapist and cannot (and should not) bear the full weight of another person’s depression, no matter how close you are. The individual with depression actually needs to turn towards what they’re experiencing and bear its full weight and experience themselves.
Stay connected and promote a “we can make it together” attitude — this can be lifesaving for the depressive person. But be aware of your limits. As a family member, you need to accept that there is only so much you can do. However, you can still continue to create a mutually supporting environment. Your loved one needs to bear the emotional weight of their experience in order to come through it, but be wary of heaping more pressure on through what you say and do.
Your loved one needs to bear the emotional weight of their experience in order to come through it, but be wary of heaping more pressure on through what you say and do.
If you take too much responsibility and are not enough care of yourself in healthy ways, it is easy to begin attacking yourself—much like what your partner is doing to themselves.
The risk of the erosion of relationship must not be overlooked. I’ll say it again, as I’ve seen it so many times, the risk of erosion in the relationship must not be overlooked. For most folks this is happening unconsciously, as it’s too painful to look at what it is they’re actually experiencing. Take time to consider what you’re experiencing and how this is for you. Share these things with your partner, but don’t heap blame asthat only deepens the depression. In a way, you’re but grieving the loss of the life you had.
It is even possible that your loved one’s other family members may begin to blame you for “not taking care” of the depressive person, which in a way, only enables the depression even further. This is an opportunity for the entire system to come to a more healthy understanding of what’s helpful.
Be Open, But Not Overprotective
Talk to the depressive person without excessive compassion. Excessive compassion will only increase the guilt and suffering in the person suffering. Your compassion may be too much for them.
By the same coin, try to be mindful of how you express your own pain and suffering due to their condition, as that may deepen their sense of shame and guilt over their situation. So, talk with them openly, but without the excessive compassion or struggle that might trigger their sense of shame or guilt.
Consider talking candidly about depression with trusted people outside of your family or relationship. I encourage it, actually. Talk about it; de-stigmatize the topic. By talking about it compassionately, depression begins to lose some of its shame and guilt. Once you start talking about the problem, other people will start sharing their stories, too. It is quite humanizing—and communicates to us that we are not alone.
Conversations with people can help your suffering partner realize that they are not alone; that they are not isolated in their experience. Furthermore, it gives them the opportunity to experience care and compassion from another person. We all know and have experienced the relief that comes with a brief encounter with another person. These moments can be immensely powerful. In fact, open conversation about depression can be especially important if the depressed person refuses to seek professional help, as it can galvanize them toward seeking outside help and starting therapy.
But the question often emerges: who to tell? Who to talk to? In the Pacific Northwest, we all know that depression is a major issue. We hear about it all the time—on KEXP, in the Seattle Times, on billboards. In this part of the country, the topic has less negative weight to it. I can’t speak for other areas. So here are some questions to help you make a decision about who to share with:
Do I know this person to be compassionate and understanding?
Does this person seem solid to me and able to bear weight?
Is this someone who is actively in my life?
What do I experience when I share with this person?
Many people who suffer from depression are reluctant to seek support and treatment for their illness. A significant reason for this unwillingness is the stigma that surrounds depression and other mental health problems.
It is not depression that’s stigmatizes, though. It is people's fear and unwillingness to experience discomfort with another, but, again, one can only do so much.
Stigma about depression is a huge obstacle to treatment, recovery, and full socialization for people suffering from this illness. It is vital, therefore, to talk about depression and replace with facts the misconceptions that lead to stereotypes, prejudices, and discrimination about depression. Open communication and education are the best ways to challenge depression stigma.
Show the depressive person that their depression doesn’t make them less valuable.
Once again, love and compassion are not enough to combat the cause of depression. It can certainly help, but it is not enough. And the cause of the depression is not yours to take on and cure. You may be a part of it, but this is their personal lived experience.
It takes a village—one that doesn't just include you and your loved one’s extended family. A “strong village” for helping someone manage their depression constitutes an intertwined support network that may include a physician, coworkers, gym-mates, neighbors, the dog walker, and anyone who has regular contact with them. Talk about depression in the family and clarify the limits of the family system and the role of outside help. This enables others to take over when the family is motivated to look for outside help, and it enables the family to accept the help they need.
Don’t expect to be the one to supply all the saving help—that just causes more stress.
Be supportive and encouraging
Provide the necessary support to your loved one. However, in the same way that your compassion can’t cure depression, keep in mind that your support cannot solve the problems for the depressive partner or family member. This is their journey of grieving what was lost and turning towards something where they experience life and value. You have your own grief to be working through, you’ve lost something as well. They are and aren’t there. It’s a gift to be journeying with another through this. I’ve written previously on the paramount importance of grief in working with depression. The same goes here. There’s something so beautiful, vulnerable, and also riveting to look your partner in the eye, turn towards the experience of the moment in the fullest sense and have a good cry over what was lost. Because, between the two of you something was lost. Some feeling or shared value or experience that brought the two of you together.
Don’t Enable the Depression Further
You need to give a family member or partner the opportunity to choose life and find those values that activate their sense of self. This might be something as simple as them choosing to get out of bed. They might make this choice for practical reasons—they don’t want to pee themselves, then have to shower, and re-clean the bedsheets.
But behind this choice are values: not wanting to waste time and wanting to take care of oneself. Inspire your family member or partner who is suffering to be active, to spend time outdoors, and to engage in light physical activities or something they have found moving or meaningful when they weren’t feeling such heaviness.
This is potentially the most important point in this whole post. Within the person something was lost, grief is needed to cleanse the wound and the loss, and turning towards where they feel a spark of life or emotionality. Within depression is a lost connection to the self, because that thing of value was lost or diminished. It’s in turning towards our experiences of life and looking within them to see the value that we create a meaning-full and embodied life.
When I worked for UPS at Boeing Field after grad school, I had to get up to unload cargo planes. I arrived at 2:30am, and was working with what I thought to be modern day mutinous pirates. I absolutely hated it.
And yet, when those jets started to pull into their parking spots and I could feel the ground shaking underneath me, the sound of the engines, and the power of just a few hand signals moving the jet into position, I knew that this rich, yet challenging, experience was totally worth it for me. There was value there for me that outweighed the cost. I was also working toward taking care of myself, caring my own weight financially with my partner while building my own practice. There was an immediate experience that I could connect with, and also a distant value that I was working toward.
What About YOUR Life?
It’s best to find something in your own life that you can connect to in the immediate moment while also looking ahead to something of value you are building toward. Some may hate their job, like I did, but they may be pouring all their money into the retirement fund so they can get out quicker. That, along with the immediate experience of warm coffee in hand and music in their earbuds as they watch the early morning sunrise over Capitol Hill on their way into work, just may make the job worth it.
With depression, it’s important to remember to keep a routine. If it brings your depressive partner or family member a sense of life, or even accomplishment, right now, they should try to continue doing it.
With this in mind, try to meet them where they are - not where you wish they would be. For some people with depression, just going for a walk might be a huge accomplishment.
As a Crossfitter, for example, if we can’t do our normal weight or pace today, that’s ok, because everyone is in it together. The gym, community, or exercise always meets us where we’re at. You and your partner will get through it. Just keep the routine. If it worked when they weren’t depressed, it’ll still work when they are.
It Is Not Your Fault
Most people feel responsible when their partner or another member of the family goes off the rails. However, your family member’s depression is not your responsibility. Although it is good to be mindful of family relations and unhealthy patterns, depression is a mental illness. Depression is often, like any other mental illness, rooted in genetic predisposition or provoked by external factors, but phenomenologically it is rooted in losing contact with what is right for the individual, what they like, and what moves them (see Pt. 1).
Get to Know Depression
Depression is a disease. It is a real health problem and not the depressed person’s attempt to draw the attention to themselves. Denying the mental illness makes room for stigma, prejudice, and discrimination. In many cases, depression is treatable if discovered and diagnosed early. With a proactive approach, you can help the family member to cope with depression more successfully.
My name is Caleb Dodson I’m a private psychotherapist in the Fremont Neighborhood of Seattle, WA and I’m most passionate about bringing kindness to and excavating a sense of humanity in the most challenging experiences to bring about a more full life.
If you’ve enjoyed this check out Pt.1 and Pt.2. If anything said above touched you and you’d like to visit, I’d encourage you to shoot me an email or schedule a time to visit. This material is many of my personal experiences and influenced by a clinical seminar on working with couples with depression in my training in Existential Analysis through the Existential Analysis Society of Canada.