Loving someone with chronic mental illness or pain is difficult. There’s a sense of helplessness, watching someone you love endure a heavy burden.
The experience is more common than you would expect. In 2017, 17.3 million American adults experienced at least one episode of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) in the past year (National Institute of Health). The impact on the caregivers of those living with mental health conditions and pain syndromes is often neglected.
One woman chronicles her memory of a partner’s struggle with depression during cancer treatment:
“He wouldn’t get out of bed, except to use the restroom. He slept for long stretches of time, and didn’t come downstairs to eat dinner or interact with the kids. I would leave protein bars on his nightstand, in the hopes that he would eat something, but mostly he just drank water. When he would look at me, he had no expression to his face. He was just… blank.’’
Depression treatment isn’t as simple as convincing someone to see a doctor once, take their medicine, and recover. Treatment can involve ongoing doctor visits, therapy sessions, multiple medication trials, without any guarantee of remission of the crippling apathy or sadness that happen in depression. That’s not even to mention the multitude of side effects that some people experience from their medication.
So what can you do, as a loved one? What will actually help?
Don’t explain away their feelings. Simply listening provides vastly more ‘help’ than explaining why you don’t see it that way. Validate their experience by just being a witness to their feelings, and acknowledge how difficult the situation is for them. Your efforts will be appreciated.
Invite them to participate in activities they enjoy. This one is tricky, because many depressed people simply don’t enjoy much anymore. However, encouraging them to try things is important, as well as showing them that you still want to spend time with them. Many depressed patients feel like they are ‘ruining the fun’ of others around them, and self-isolate. Remind them that you still want to spend time with them, and not only when they’re happy.
Encourage and model self-care. When was the last time you saw a therapist, went for a jog, or did some gratitude journaling? Finding and appreciating the benefits of taking care of yourself can develop into an activity to enjoy together for your mutual wellbeing. Often, caregivers need help with the feelings that bubble to the surface when depression occurs in their family member or partner, so going to therapy is modeling self-care.
Join a caregiver support group. Mental health and caregiver support groups abound in most metropolitan areas, and the effects are two-fold: sharing in a common experience decreases feelings of isolation, and developing a strong social support network bolsters overall wellbeing.
Frustration is normal–but watch where you aim it. People with depression and other chronic conditions don’t choose to be ill. Therefore, it makes sense that they cannot simply wake up one day and decide that they will stop being depressed. It’s common for loved ones to be frustrated with the situation as a whole, or with the person who is depressed, because things are different and require adjustment–but be aware of how you verbalize those feelings, so your loved one doesn’t feel guilty for something outside of their control.
You can’t ‘fix’ anyone else. This may be the most important principle. While love and support help many, no one but the depressed person can do the work necessary to help them feel better. The sister concept to this is that loved ones cannot force anyone to seek treatment, outside of concerns for self-harm.
A final reminder: be kind to yourself. Depression and mental illness are difficult for everyone involved, and it is never anyone’s fault.
If you or a loved one is considering suicide, please seek emergent help by dialing 9-1-1 or reach out to the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.