But if you’re in a relationship with someone suffering from depression, you see that person at their most vulnerable and know just how heavy their burden is every day. What’s the best way to support a partner dealing with depression and encourage them to get treatment? Below, therapists share eight small but meaningful things you can start doing.
1. Adjust your expectations.
When you’re depressed, even dragging yourself out of bed in the morning can feel like an insurmountable challenge. Recognize that your partner’s energy levels are at an all-time low, and cut them a break if they seem absolutely disinterested in doing household chores.
“Unless you have been depressed yourself, it’s difficult to understand this utter lack of motivation,” said Amanda Deverich, a marriage and family therapist in Williamsburg, Virginia. “Criticizing will compound the helpless feeling of depression, not motivate. Depression can take time, and steps forward are small. Focus your energies on supporting your partner productively. Now is the time to be patient.”
2. Don’t lecture them about how to feel better. Just listen.
You might be willing to move mountains for your partner, but there’s no way you can single-handedly “fix” their problems, especially something as serious as depression. What you can do is continue to be a safe sounding board for them when they’re riding out their highs and lows, said Ryan Howes, a psychologist from Pasadena, California.
“One of the most helpful things you can do is to simply listen,” he said. “Ask how they’re feeling or what they’ve been thinking about and sit back to listen without judgement.”
Be patient if they don’t want to delve too deeply into their feelings and never press them to be more forthcoming, Howes advised.
“One of the main symptoms of depression is decreased energy, so it may take a little time and effort for them to articulate their thoughts,” he said. “If they can vent some feelings, that alone will be a valuable exercise. Try to avoid giving them answers or a list of things to do unless they ask for it, and just try to empathize.”
3. Get outside.
Nature can’t replace a prescribed depression treatment plan, but a stroll around the park or a hike could boost your partner’s mood, said Kurt Smith, a therapist who specializes in counseling for men. (Hopefully you catch a lot of sun while you’re out; low vitamin D levels have been linked to depression, particularly seasonal affective disorder, which is experienced in the winter months when there’s less sunlight.)
“Your plan to go out doesn’t have to be elaborate,” Smith said. “Get them to move or go for a walk or some other activity they usually enjoy. You’re likely to get some resistance, so be prepared to be persistent.”
4. Help make the search for a therapist easier.
You may pride yourself on being a great listener, but you can’t offer the kind of frank, objective advice a professional can.
It’s essential to find a qualified therapist, but Howes said that search can be overwhelming ― especially if you’re dealing with depression. That’s where you come in: Find a few experts, then share your research with your partner.
“To get your search started, I’d recommend a therapist finder website like Psychology Today or GoodTherapy and start narrowing down the list by location, cost/insurance, a focus on depression, the preferred gender (if that applies), treatment approaches and help them find the best two to three possible matches,” Howes said.
You can set up the initial appointment and encourage your partner to make more in the future.
“And then, let go,” Howes said. “The therapy is now theirs, and they won’t need a backseat driver.”
5. Make delicious, healthy meals.
There’s a good chance that your S.O.’s depression has resulted in them eating meals that are super quick and super easy, but not necessarily super nutritious. That needs to end now.
Even if you aren’t the primary cook in the house, make it a priority to make healthy, heartening meals for both of you, said Isiah McKimmie, a couples therapist and sexologist in Melbourne, Australia.
“Making dinner for you partner takes something off their to-do list and can help them feel supported,” she said. “Diet and nutrition are also important in helping us get back on our feet, so by making healthy nourishing food for them, you’ll also be helping them feel better internally.”
6. Treat their depression with the seriousness it deserves.
Unfortunately, society still treats mental illnesses like depression differently than physical illness, chalking the disorder up to a weakness in character and expecting the person suffering to just “snap out of it.”
Obviously, using that kind of language with your partner isn’t going to work. Instead, tell them you understand what they’re up against and remind them that you’re an equal partner in their fight against depression, Howes said.
“Mental illnesses can be every bit as debilitating as cancer, and is no more the fault of the sufferer than any other illness,” he said. “Your stance toward your partner and their disease can help them make great strides and prevent them from adding shame to their already considerable problems. Treat depression like a bug that your partner caught, and work together to fight against its causes, symptoms and repercussions.”
“Look at it as, ‘It’s you and me versus this depression,’” he added.
7. Daydream and plan things you want to do together.
Give your partner something to look forward to by brainstorming places you want to go or cool things you want to buy for your home, Smith said.
“Do as much as you can to make the planning as real as possible, even if actually doing it isn’t practical,” he said. “The following through isn’t necessary. It’s the mental exercise that will get them out of their current thoughts that you want to accomplish.”
8. Take care of yourself first.
Caring for someone who’s dealing with something as debilitating as depression is exhausting. That’s why it’s incredibly important to prioritize your self-care, whether that means heading to the basketball court with your friends every now and then or not skipping your regular mani/pedi appointments.
Those “me moments” will ultimately benefit your partner, McKimmie said, because you can’t provide support to someone else if you’re running on empty. What’s more, it will probably be a huge relief for your significant other to see you thriving.
“On top of feeling depressed, your partner may become concerned about the impact their state of mind is having on your relationship and worry that you’ll leave or become tired of them,” she said. “Seeing that you’re OK is one less thing your partner has to worry about. By you taking care of yourself, you’ll also be able to better support your partner.”