Depression. It’s one of the commonest mental health conditions and can blight the lives of those who suffer from it. But there’s often a forgotten a victim of depression—the partner or relative who is helping someone who is going through a depressive episode. This person may be suffering in silence, as supporting a relative with depression can be difficult. However, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone and that positive strategies can often help.
What are the symptoms of depression?
Periods of depression can last for a few weeks or for much longer and there’s a whole range of symptoms. Patients may exhibit some or all of the symptoms, which include: low mood, feelings of sadness and hopelessness, loss of interest in hobbies and other activities, reduced sex drive, irritability, persistent tiredness, poor sleep patterns and thoughts of self-harm.
Here are some tips to help you care for a loved one with depression.
1. Take care of yourself
Taking care of your own health should be your first priority because you can’t help to support your relative if you become ill yourself. Try not to get dragged down into negativity, and develop strategies for managing your own mental health. You may find a support group for carers is helpful, or you might prefer to choose a friend that you can share with honestly (secure in the knowledge that they’ll keep your conversations confidential). In addition, there’s nothing wrong with occasionally taking a break by going out on your own or doing an activity you love—even if your relative won’t come along.
2. Don’t take things personally
It’s sometimes hard to remember, but it’s important to understand that depression is an illness. Your relative may do or say things that can be hurtful (e.g. make unkind remarks or withdraw from intimacy), but try to bear in mind that they’re suffering from a condition they can’t just ‘snap out of’ and that their attitude is colored by it. They may want to hide away and not go out, or slow right down in their everyday living, so try to be patient with this without allowing it to dominate your own life.
3. Take each day as it comes
Depression can be an erratic condition. Someone may be feeling better one day but then worse the following day, so sometimes it’s difficult to believe they’re making progress. Do your best to accept how they feel from day to day, and make an effort to view things in terms of good days and bad days (rather than letting one miserable day feel as though it’s going to become a permanent state). This can be particularly hard if there doesn’t seem to be any specific trigger, but understanding the nature of depression can go a long way towards helping you feel less personally affected.
4. Support and challenge
Naturally, your relative may feel guilty and unworthy because of their illness and its effect on you, so try to reassure them that you understand and that you still care about them. Distinguish between the symptoms of the depression and their personal character, and remind them that ‘it’s only the depression talking’ when they feel overwhelmed. Sometimes, offering to do things with them (e.g. a workout or meditation session) may help them to manage their symptoms. However, you also need to be ready to challenge if necessary—for example, if they forget to eat, sleep or take their medication. You may recognize the onset of a bout of depression before they do, which means you are in a position to encourage them to seek help before things go too far.
5. Keep communication open
Do your best to communicate openly and honestly. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you feel hurt or worn out if you’re able to also convey that you know their behavior is shaped by the depression rather than something personal. Further, you may be able to give valuable support by offering alternatives to self-condemning thoughts that often circle round the head during a depressive episode. Good communication can also be an invaluable way of becoming aware of any thoughts of self-harm that your relative may be entertaining.
Living with a relative who has depression can be a real challenge, but most patients improve in time, and your love and support during the difficult periods will go a long way towards giving them the best chance of recovery.