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Supporting a partner through depression

Tags: depression, mental health

One in five people will experience a form of depression at some point in their lives [1]. If your partner is depressed, you can play an important role in helping them get better.

Depression is more than just a low mood. It’s a prolonged illness, whose symptoms include a lack of energy, a loss of interest in things you might normally enjoy, feelings of low self-worth, and changes in sleep and appetite [2].

A sudden onset of depression in your partner can have an impact on your relationship. You may have to take on a temporary caring role, which can put unexpected strain on you [3]. Some of your partner’s symptoms can affect you too:

  • Low mood. When your partner is feeling down most of the time, it can feel like you don’t have access to the person who is most important to you.
  • Loss of interest and energy. Your partner may lose interest in the things you like doing together, like going out, cooking, and even sex.
  • Concentration. Depression can affect concentration, even to the extent that your partner struggles to stay involved in a conversation.
  • Sleep and appetite. You may notice changes in your partner’s eating and sleeping patterns, which can affect their mood even further. It can also disrupt your own eating and sleeping as established routines get lost.
  • Low self-worth. You may notice your partner being more critical of themselves and possibly lashing out at you too. [2]

You may also wonder if you are responsible for your partner’s mental health problems. While there are sometimes external causes, including relationship problems, depression can often come along out of nowhere [4].

You can play a positive role in your partner’s recovery [3]. One of the first things you can do is notice the signs of depression and encourage your partner to seek help. Often, the quickest route to support is through your GP, who can make a diagnosis and refer your partner to appropriate support.

There are many forms of mental health support, but it’s likely that your partner will undertake some form of talking therapy. They may be given exercises to take home. You can offer support by encouraging your partner to complete the exercises or, if appropriate, by getting involved directly.

Your partner’s doctor may recommend couples therapy, which has been shown to be effective for people with depression [5]. If this is recommended to your partner, it doesn’t mean that your relationship is in trouble; it just means that you are being asked to get involved in your partner’s recovery. Attending sessions together means you can be better informed and more involved.

Whether you are directly involved in your partner’s treatment or not, there are many ways you can be supportive:

  • Encourage them to seek support. Getting your partner into professional support is one of the best ways you can help.
  • Learn about depression. Read up on depression and its symptoms. A good place to start is the OnePlusOne and NHS guide, ‘Depression and low mood: A guide for the partner
  • Set aside blame. Accept that the illness is happening, and don’t blame your partner or yourself. It’s here, and it’s treatable, so just focus on recovery.
  • Notice the signs. Be aware of your partner’s symptoms and the things that can set off an episode of depression. Get support if things seem to be getting worse.
  • Solve practical problems. When someone is depressed, problems can be magnified and may seem insurmountable. You can help your partner by solving practical problems, which could be as simple as doing more than your share of housework for a little while.
  • Listen more. Clear communication and active listening can help your partner to feel better supported and more in control.
  • Do some exercise. Help your partner to get some gentle exercise, even if it’s just a walk around the block. This can have the added benefit of helping with sleep problems.
  • Get your partner out of the house. While it might seem easier to avoid social situations, it’s often best to try and turn up to things that they would usually enjoy. Even if you plan just to go out for half an hour, you can help your partner break out of the loop of depression and inactivity.
  • Notice what helps. What usually makes your partner feel better – a morning walk? Cooking a healthy meal? Make a note of what works, and encourage your partner to do more of it. Keeping a mood journal can also help you to show your partner that they have been making improvements, as they may find it hard to focus on the positives [6].

Seeing a partner go through depression can be upsetting but, with the right support, even the most severe cases can be treated. As with any illness, you should seek professional help if you are worried. Recovery is likely to be gradual, but it is possible, and you can play an important part.

This article gives just a quick overview of how you can support a partner with depression. For a more in-depth look, we recommend reading, ‘Depression and low mood: A guide for the partner’, co-produced by OnePlusOne and Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust.

References

[1] Bolton, J., Bisson, J., Guthrie, E., Wood., S. (2011) Depression: key facts. Retrieved from http://www.rcpsych.ac.uk/healthadvice/problemsdisorders/depressionkeyfacts.aspx

[2] NHS (2015). Low mood and depression - NHS Choices. Available at http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/stress-anxiety-depression/pages/low-mood-and-depression.aspx 

[3] Crowe, M. (2004). Couples and mental illness. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 19:3, 309-318.

[4] Hickey, D., Carr, A., Dooley, B., Guerin, S., Butler, E., & Fitzpatrick, L. (2005). Family and marital profiles of couples in which one partner has depression or anxiety. Journal of marital and family therapy, 31(2), 171-182.

[5] Bodenmann, G., Plancherel, B., Beach, S. R., Widmer, K., Gabriel, B., Meuwly, N., ... & Schramm, E. (2008). Effects of coping-oriented couples therapy on depression: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 76(6), 944.

[6] NICE (2009) Depression: The Treatment and Management of Depression in Adults (Update). NICE clinical guideline 90. Available at www.nice.org.uk/CG90

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