“How do I help my wife who is depressed?”
“How can I be helpful to my depressed friend?”
These are all questions I frequently hear.
Last month was Depression Awareness Month and I would be remiss if I didn’t also try to help those who have depressed loved ones.
Prevalence of Depression is at an All-time High
By 2020, depression will be our greatest epidemic worldwide: greater than cancer, heart disease, and AIDS combined. One in four individuals will be diagnosed at some time in their lifetime. What that means is that even if you haven’t personally struggled with depression, I guarantee you know someone who has, who does, and who will.
It can be challenging to know how to help a depressed spouse or friend.
Yet I often hear from individuals that they know their husband, wife, or friend is depressed and they don’t know what to do to help. I understand. I’ve had friends go through other major life trials, and because I haven’t walked through those valleys, I can’t relate from a personal experience, yet I want to help.
When you love someone who is depressed, it can be confusing, difficult, and challenging for both of you to navigate. First let me say, I’m so sorry for your spouse or loved one, and for you, that depression has entered the tapestry of your life. I know from my personal experience that it’s so very hard!
How You Can Help a Depressed Husband, Wife, Loved One or Friend
1. Be alert to signs and symptoms of depression. Everyone with depression presents a bit differently. But generally, most individuals who are depressed exhibit mood or personality changes. Some may be sad, or discouraged, or ambivalent, or even angry. You’re also likely to see changes in appetite or weight (either too much or too little), and often some form of sleep disturbance (sleeping too much or too little). Depressed individuals often lack energy and motivation, and find it difficult to manage everyday tasks because they now feel overwhelming (such as brushing their teeth or walking the dog). They often show a lack of interest in people or things that they previously cared about. Sometimes they experience difficulty concentrating or difficulty making decisions. Sadly, many also believe that life for them and for those they love would be better if they were no longer there, and contemplate suicide (Suicide: There’s Another Way; The Sadness Behind Suicide; Helping the Suicidal). If you notice several of these symptoms, and they have lasted more than a couple of weeks, or have come and gone and returned, depression is a strong likelihood.
2. Be brave and have an open discussion about what your concerns [are] and what you notice. Depression is a lonely disorder. I’ve never met someone struggling with depression who didn’t wish for someone to understand and support them. Sometimes, however, depressed individuals may not see the signs and symptoms in themselves. Speak out of love and concern for them, rather than in a harsh, critical, or judgmental tone that will only engender defensiveness. I would discourage comments such as, “I think you’re depressed” in favor of comments such as “You haven’t seemed as happy lately. How are you feeling? How can I help?”
3. Understand and help explain that depression is a medical condition just like diabetes or heart disease. Many who struggle with depression feel ashamed, embarrassed and guilty. Unfortunately, society has stigmatized mental health disorders, largely out of a lack of understanding, but that has made it more challenging for those afflicted to willingly acknowledge their condition or seek help.
4. Keep in mind that their denial doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Sometimes others recognize depression in someone before the afflicted individual recognizes it in themselves. If your spouse or loved one denies there is a problem, or blames it on something like a stressful period, or rationalizes it because of circumstances, be patient but persistent in expressing your concern out of your love for them.
5. Know that you can’t “fix” their depression. Sometimes out of our great love for another person, and the fact that we hurt when they hurt, we take it upon ourselves to try to “fix” the problem. There is no simple “fix” for depression — healing is a process. But even so, you can love and support and seek to understand them through this, but it isn’t your issue to fix. Ultimately, your husband, wife, or loved one has to want to get better and do the necessary work.
6. I want to also take a moment and encourage you to realize that their depression is not your fault. I know it hurts to be the object of their anger, frustration, doubt, or blame. The truth is that hurting people hurt other people. When enduring the pain of depression, we can often hurt the ones we love the most. It is not intentional. In fact, frequently we don’t even know we are doing it. The good news is that while hurt people hurt other people, freed people free people, so with appropriate help and treatment, our depressed husbands, wives, and loved ones could help others too.
7. If your depressed husband or wife is considering suicide, get help immediately. Either call 911, or take them to the nearest emergency room. Another option is to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or 800-SUICIDE (800-784-2433).
Over my 30 years in the mental health profession, people have admitted fear that asking if their loved one is suicidal will put the idea in their head. I can assure you, it will not. Chances are, they’ve already thought of it — whether the thoughts are fleeting or something they think about frequently.
Let me encourage you, if you wonder if your loved one might be so depressed that they’d consider suicide, ask them. You would much rather ask “Are you thinking of hurting yourself or taking your life?” (which can open the door both for a healthy discussion about their current state, and show them your support) or then to have to ask “Why didn’t they say something?” after they’ve committed the act.
8. For anyone suspecting that either they, their husband, their wife, or other loved one may be depressed, encourage them to see their primary care physician to rule out a medical condition which could prompt such changes in mood and personality.
9. If they are cleared of any contributing medical condition, I strongly recommend a consultation with a psychologist to determine an accurate diagnosis. [If] what they are struggling with is truly depression or perhaps something else or something in addition to depression, accurate diagnosis is essential to effective treatment.
10. In addition to encouraging your depressed spouse or friend to go to their doctor or mental health provider, offer to make the appointment for them and go with them. Depression is often accompanied by decreased motivation, decreased initiative, and worry, fear, and anxiety, all of which can make it challenging for depressed individuals to seek the help they need. Further, when one is depressed and has difficulty concentrating and making decisions, it can be helpful to have a second set of eyes and ears at such appointments to help ask pertinent questions and remember the suggestions or instructions given by the provider.
11. If your loved one seeks treatment, you may consider getting their permission to discuss their treatment. Frequently it’s helpful to be able to openly discuss changes in presentation, concerns, and treatment plans with their provider, and to be able to clarify any misunderstandings or instructions for ongoing treatment. Recognize, however, that some individuals often prefer to keep such sensitive issues private and confidential, and doing so may help their motivation to continue treatment if they feel they have a safe, confidential place to express their feelings. Respect their wishes.
12. The Bible encourages us to “Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15 NLT). In essence, try to meet them where they are with the intent to understand their experience rather than judge. As a spouse or friend, you can be understanding of their feelings, show them love and compassion, and discuss with them how their presentation makes you feel, in an emotionally neutral context and tone of voice. You may find some of my other posts about what to say or what not to say to a depressed loved one helpful. (What to Say When a Loved One is Depressed or What Not to Say When a Loved One is Depressed).
13. You too may find it beneficial to participate in therapy to learn how to better support your husband or wife or friend, while also protecting your own heart from intentional or unintentional wounding.
14. Pray for your depressed spouse or friend. This is perhaps one of the most important recommendations I can make. You are not alone in this journey. God hurts for you and your depressed loved one. Do what you can to help in practical ways like those listed above, but then entrust them into God’s perfect care. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (Galatians 6:9 NIV).
15. If you or a spouse or loved one suffer from depression, know that it is impossible to give a comprehensive list of recommendations or advice here in a blog post. But you might consider reading “Hope Prevails: Insights From a Doctor’s Personal Journey Through Depression” and doing the companion “Hope Prevails Bible Study,” both of which were resources I wrote specifically to help those who were unable to consult with me in my private practice.
Above all, know that God sees. He cares, and He has not and will not leave you to fight this battle alone.
Because of Him, #HopePrevails!
May I Pray for You?
Father, I lift up all who are suffering from depression or love those who do. Father, you tell us you desire to comfort all who mourn, to give them a crown of beauty in exchange for their ashes, to give us the oil of joy instead of mourning, and festive praise in place of despair. Would you, Father, be near and comfort their broken hearts. Would you assure them of your love and the hope that prevails because of you. And would you give them wisdom to know what to do, trusting the outcome to you. We thank you in advance for your healing power. In Jesus’s name, Amen.
If you know individuals who are pastors, ministry leaders, Bible teachers, counselors, mentors, or teachers who work with individuals suffering from depression, please consider sharing this post and my two books with them, so that they know resources do exist to help them help others.
(If you have a question you’d like Dr. B to answer in a future post, contact her here now. Your name and identity will be kept confidential.)