It’s not easy to know how to help a depressed spouse, but this advice can get you started.
Doug’s grin was as big as the the Great Barrier Reef. He was always laughing and reaching out to hold Shelly, saying he was the luckiest man on the planet to be married to her. He had great dreams for them. Giant, grandiose dreams.
But he also struggled with some pretty low lows. A back injury saddled him with chronic pain. It seemed to Shelly that the pain medicines numbed Doug’s mind and made him not care about much of anything. Shelly was wounded — and worried. She thought Doug was pushing her away, and she didn’t know how to make things right again.
How did things get to this point? she thought. Is my husband depressed? Where did the smiles and the laughter go? This is not what I signed up for.
Depression is an unwelcome guest that can intrude on any marriage. So many things can trigger it — life circumstances, chemical imbalances, undiagnosed medical conditions, a traumatic life-threatening event, spiritual struggles, broken dreams and broken promises. Anything on that list has the potential to set off a downward spiral of ever-worsening negative thoughts that can overwhelm even the most resilient person.
Realise that Christians have depression
One of the biggest misperceptions is thinking that depression can’t happen to us. Dealing with this problem is particularly troubling for Christians. We somehow suppose that being a Christian means that we can’t be depressed. And if we are depressed, that might mean we’re not real Christians. After all, aren’t Christians supposed to be joyful?
If we think being depressed is incompatible with our faith, we’re apt to deny any feelings of depression. But denial only gives depression an opportunity to gain a stronger foothold. None of us are immune to the brokenness of this world.
Consider that depression could be a possibility for what your spouse is experiencing.
Know the symptoms
Does your spouse have any of these symptoms of depression?
- An unexplained physical problem.
- Slowed thinking and movement (depression is a heavy weight for both the body and the soul).
- Insomnia or excessive sleepiness (not wanting to get out of bed).
- Anxiety, agitation or restlessness.
- Change in appetite — either no appetite or wanting to eat everything in sight (think comfort food).
- Anhedonia: not finding pleasure in anything and loss of interest in hobbies, sports, sex, etc.
- Crying spells and persistent feelings of sadness.
- Angry outbursts, increased irritability.
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
- Frequent thoughts of death or a suicide attempt.
Depression in men often reveals itself in anger, reckless behaviour and physical symptoms such as headaches, sleep disorders, sexual dysfunction and digestive complaints. It’s important to know that all depression doesn’t look the same. A person who is sometimes “upbeat” could be suffering from a mental health condition that includes depression as a major component.
Talk about it
Doug was growing increasingly irritable, had lost weight and had no interest in anything. Shelly knew Doug’s symptoms might point to depression, but her heart raced at the mere thought of talking to him about it.
Maybe I should just keep quiet, she thought as she tossed and turned at night. Should I just keep doing all of the housework and give Doug space to work through this? She was scared about how he might respond if she raised the issue and worried that she might make matters worse.
But ignoring the issue won’t improve matters. So here’s how to help a depressed spouse: First, don’t be afraid to talk about the symptoms you see. Mentioning the word depression will not make a person depressed. Asking your spouse if they feel suicidal will not make them suicidal. It will not plant that idea in their head. It may already be there, and it’s vital that you know it. The most dreadful complication of this disease is suicide.
Ask about suicidal thoughts
Be aware if your spouse begins giving away prized possessions or admits to feelings of hopelessness or unbearable pain. A suicidal person doesn’t so much want to end life as to escape the pain. They are too tired to fight to live anymore. They just want to get away from the hurt, the confusion, the darkness.
A gentle way to approach this subject of suicidal thoughts would be to say something along these lines: “Honey, there’s been a lot going on lately. Have you been doing OK? I’ve been concerned. Are you feeling overwhelmed? Have you had any thoughts of hurting yourself?”
Do not leave your spouse alone if you think they are suicidal. Remove any weapons in the home. Having thoughts of suicide is a medical emergency. Call 000 and tell the operator that your spouse is at risk of hurting themselves or potentially someone else. If you feel your life is in danger, seek a safe place. Keep your phone with you and stay in contact with the 000 operator.
Shelly had been concerned about Doug’s pain medications. She’d heard so much about opioid drug overdoses. When Doug wasn’t looking, Shelly would often count the pills in his bottle to make sure he wasn’t taking too many. She was relieved when Doug’s doctor also gave him a prescription for naloxone (Narcan), designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.
If you’re concerned that your spouse is depressed, monitor any medications they may be taking and offer to be the one to dispense them.
Don’t be ashamed
Shame causes us to shrink back, to feel unworthy, to hide. Do not worry about what other people will think. Who are they that we should care? Depression is a disease that can affect anyone. It’s subtle, perplexing and afflicts people from all walks of life. Do not take your spouse’s depression personally. It hasn’t occurred because of anything you did or didn’t do.
Depression grows in the dark. Instead of hiding in shame, we need to open the blinds and draw back the curtains. When we’re depressed, we’re like someone wearing polarised glasses that let in only the negative and filter out all of the positive. In the darkness of depression, truth is harder to see.
Help a depressed spouse by being supportive
A supportive spouse can help let in the light. Learn everything you can about depression. Share your observations without being critical. Be encouraging without trivialising the seriousness of this disease. Supportive spouses don’t say, “Snap out of it!” If people could “snap out of it,” no one would be depressed. And since depressed people commonly do not know why they’re depressed, avoid asking for an explanation or saying, “What have you got to be depressed about?”
Pray and seek support
We have a perfect Saviour, but we don’t have perfect lives. It’s most often in our brokenness that we draw near to God and our lives let the power of God shine through. So pour out your tears and fears before God.
If you’re not sure how to pray, remember Romans 8:26, which says, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
It’s OK to pray alone in the night watches, but it’s not OK to suffer alone. Reach out to a trusted friend, a pastor or a Sunday School teacher. Real life is messy, and figuring out how to help a depressed spouse is difficult. Keeping a journal can help you sort through the chaos. Writing about your experiences and re-reading your entries can give you insight into how your spouse’s depression is affecting you.
Encourage your spouse to see a doctor
Many physical maladies have symptoms that mimic depression. Depression is also a side effect of some medications, for example, beta-blockers, pain medications and anxiety medications. That’s why seeing a family GP is important.
In addition, many people are more comfortable talking to their regular doctor about depression, especially initially, rather than going to a mental health specialist. If needed, the team approach of a physician and mental health specialist working together can be an optimal collaboration.
No matter who your spouse sees first, it’s important that you both trust the professional and that you choose someone who can follow up with you and your spouse on a regular basis. Some episodes of depression occur only once, but it’s not uncommon to have a recurrence.
When you talk with a health specialist, be sure to mention any family members with mental health issues. It’s common for there to be a family history. And remember, there are effective treatment options for depression.
Doug agreed to go with Shelly to see their family doctor. After a thorough evaluation and a consultation with a psychiatrist, Doug was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His current depression was a part of that condition, formerly known as manic depression. He started taking a mood stabiliser. Both he and Shelly were encouraged by having a diagnosis and a treatment plan.
Take care of yourself
When your spouse is depressed, you can become depressed. The dark cloud hovers over both of you. Please take time to care for yourself. Consider seeing your doctor for your own sake. Avoid blaming yourself for the situation or thinking that you have to fix your spouse’s depression yourself.
As much as we don’t like to admit it, sometimes other people can help our loved ones better than we can. We need to be wise enough to let them.
If you or someone you know needs marital help, Focus on the Family has resources and pastoral care to assist. To find a counsellor in your area go to the Christian Counsellors Association of Australia.