When someone you love lives with depression: four key things to understand
Depression is a global problem, and with 2020 having been such a difficult year for all of us so far, the number of people suffering from depression is likely to rise. Indeed, the World Health Organisation predict that by 2030, depression will account for the highest burden of disease on a global basis.
There is a lot of advice around on how to get help if you are suffering from depression, and you can find detailed and useful guidance on everything from the pharmaceutical route to how your diet and holistic health habits can help you to manage or improve your depression.
However, depression doesn’t only affect the patient – it affects their loved ones and families too. Living with or loving someone who has long-term depression can be extremely difficult, and it’s vital that those who love and care for a depressed person look after themselves too.
Here are some simple tips to think about if someone you love has depression.
1 It’s Not Your Fault
Living with or loving someone suffering from depression brings up many emotions. You may feel anger and impatience, especially if your loved one’s depression gets in the way of the life you used to have together. You may also feel that are constantly walking on eggshells, not knowing what to do or say and worried about making things worse. In my experience, however, on the most common emotions people feel when a loved one is depressed is guilt.
After all, if you were a better partner, parent, sibling or child, they wouldn’t be depressed, right? If your life together was better, they’d be just fine, so the fact that your loved one is depressed must mean that you’re just not good enough for them. You’ve let them down. You’re just not lovable/attractive/clever/rich enough to make them happy. Right?
Wrong. Depression is a chemical imbalance of the brain. It has nothing whatsoever to do with you or your relationship with the depressed person. You haven’t caused their depression. It’s absolutely vital to understand this – and once you do get your head around it, living with a depressed person becomes much, much easier.
2 You Can’t ‘Fix’ It
Following on from #1 – once you understand that your loved one’s depression isn’t your fault, you will inevitably also reach conclusion #2. If you didn’t cause it, you can’t fix it either.
There’s nothing you can alter in your own lifestyle or personality which will fix someone else’s depression, and you cannot make your loved one alter themselves either.
Stop constantly fretting about how to cure your loved one, and instead start finding ways to simply be with them, in their current moment, however they are. People with depression don’t want to be fixed, as such, and it’s disempowering to approach them from that angle. Simply be with them, in loving support, on their journey.
3 But You Can Help
Understanding that you can’t fix someone’s depression is not the same as abandoning them or not caring. It’s human instinct to try to help someone you love, and it causes us pain to see someone we love suffering. The key is in understanding how you can help, without expecting your intervention to be a magic bullet.
You can help your loved one with depression in many ways. For example:
- Encourage them to share their feelings, whenever and however they feel comfortable. But don’t pressurise them to talk about it.
- Loving smiles, gestures and touches are comforting when words don’t come easily.
- Offer (but don’t insist on being) company if your loved one is willing to try something. For example, if they are willing to go for a walk, be happy to go too if they’d like that.
- Facilitate them getting help if they are willing – offer to make appointments, accompany them to appointments, remind them with medication or makes changes to your routines to accommodate therapy.
- But don’t insist that they seek help when and how you want them to – the desire to get help has to come from within.
4 Don’t Stop Being You
Walking on eggshells around a depressed person is not helpful; if you’re behaving abnormally, it’s an unwelcome reminder to them that there is an issue. Try to act normally. Do the things you would normally do, say the things you would normally say (kindly!) and keep your everyday routines going.
You’re not a saint. Occasionally you’re going to get frustrated or lose your temper and it would be ridiculous to expect otherwise. Mitigate the impact of this on your loved one, however, by learning to use “I” statements instead of the more accusatory “You” statements. For example, “I’m stressed because I feel that I have so much to do in the house and it’s overwhelming to me,” instead of “You never help with the housework”. This is a good habit to have in any relationship anyway, regardless whether you’re dealing with someone with depression or not, so it’s worth learning.
Look after your own mental health. Freeing yourself from feelings of guilt or obligation to ‘fix’ someone’s depression is a good start, but that’s not all there is to it. Create space in your life for hobbies or friendships which enrich you and don’t allow your loved one’s depression to become all-consuming for you both – you cannot be there for someone you love if your own mental health starts to deteriorate.
Living with someone suffering from depression is not easy, but honoring their journey and being ‘with’ them rather than trying to ‘manage’ them will make life less stressful for you both.