Compassion and understanding form the basis of a loving and successful marriage. In order to support one another, for better, but especially for worse, you have to be able to relate to and understand the difficulties the other person is facing.
When anxiety and depression strike and your partner suddenly turns from a fun-loving ‘partner in crime’ to someone who is vulnerable, reclusive and petrified it can be difficult to accept.
I have been there. When my husband was struggling to cope because of mental health problems, my first instinct was to smother him in hugs and cups of tea. Unfortunately, supporting someone through a depressive episode is not quite that simple.
I had to learn, and learn fast.
1. Educate yourself
If you haven’t had first-hand experience with mental health problems, chances are that you will feel pretty out of your depth. Your usual go-to methods of consoling will likely come up short and your partner might not respond to your normal ways of interaction. The best thing you can start to do is to learn more about the condition.
Speak to your primary healthcare provider. They should be able to supply you with leaflets and links to reliable websites. The internet can certainly be your friend, but there is lots of misinformation out there, so make sure you read verified sources from respected organisations that give trustworthy advice.
2. Seek medical help
You’re obviously not the only person who should speak to your doctor to get advice. Encourage your partner to seek medical help. Be willing to go along with them if they need your support, but don’t get offended if they’d rather not have you there. Do make sure that someone professional is involved from the start, whether that is a doctor, counsellor or nurse. This is probably not a problem that will be solved by being strong, no matter how determined and supportive you are.
3. Be present and listen, don’t be tempted to ‘solve’
Just be there. This is the first thing my husband said to me when I asked how to help him. It’s tempting to want to solve their problems, to give advice or to try and point out how there is no reason to feel the way they do. This is not how depression and anxiety work, unfortunately. You cannot reason with their illness. They cannot. Be present for them, let them know there is no judgment and that you’d be ready to listen when they want to talk.
4. Don’t lay on the pressure
The second thing my husband asked me to do was not to pressurise him. Getting better takes time, and there may be many ups and downs in the journey to recovery. Try to be patient. Personally, I did a lot of reading around the time of his diagnosis. Back then, his depression was acute and he endured many panic attacks, insomnia and constant anxiety. It was a scary time for him.
I found it frustrating not being able to help – at least not in the immediate ways I was used to. It’s not like going to the dentist to remove a bad tooth.
Coming to terms with a diagnosis takes time. Medication and therapies also take time. The best thing you can do is to avoid putting pressure on your loved one to get better fast.
5. Keep doing the stuff you both enjoy
Don’t stop doing things together. Depression might steal a lot of joy from your life, and things that used to be enjoyable may be less so. But continue to incorporate healthy behaviours into your day. This will help keep up some kind of normal.
Things like physical exercise and spending time in nature can really boost mental well-being and help to restore balance. Doing the things you both enjoy will also remind you that depression and anxiety doesn’t have to define you. You are still the same people as you were before.
6. Check in with them regularly
Over the years our lives have settled around my husband’s condition and we’ve found a groove. Treatments have worked, some better than others. The most important piece of advice I would give at this point is to keep the conversation going. In my experience, it has been up to me to do this actively. Often, men have trouble talking about their problems. Not only that, but lots of people who live with depression can be rather good at masking their problems. Check in with them on a regular basis.
Most importantly, reassure them that you love and accept them, no matter what.
UK/MED/19/0184 August 2019