Today I’m answering all your questions and, as always, giving my top 5 tips, and an amazing tool you can use right away to start some change. So, let’s jump in!
If you believe someone might be considering suicide, talk to them about it now. You can help them find support and do your best to keep them safe. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or dial 911 in the United States.
The Difference Between Sadness and Depression
When dealing with your partner (or anyone for that matter) who seems depressed, the first thing you need to do is think through whether they’re depressed or sad. I’m not saying you need to become a psychologist (and recommend that you don’t get too into diagnosing), but I do want you to feel equipped to handle either situation. As you might imagine, what I suggest you do if someone you love is sad is different than what I suggest you do if that person is clinically depressed.
Sadness is a healthy, normal emotion. We generally get sad when something challenging or hurtful has happened. This could be the death of a loved one, moving from a town you enjoyed living in, the loss of a job or having a fight with your partner.
The deal with sadness is that you feel it about something that has happened. An event or a situation outside yourself. As we resolve whatever happened or as time passes, our sadness subsides.
Depression, on the other hand, is not a healthy, normal emotion. Although we throw around the word depressed pretty easily these days, we’re usually talking about sadness, not depression. Depression is a mental illness that actually affects how you think and perceive the events and people in your life. We become sad about a thing. We become depressed and then feel sad about everything.
Depression doesn’t actually need any external thing to happen to be triggered. In fact, often people’s lives are objectively great; there’s nothing to be sad about: good job, loving partner, new baby, healthy body. You can have all this, but you still feel like poop and can’t even “see” what you’ve got.
When someone is sad, we can give them time and encouragement, and this will generally heal their sadness. When someone is depressed, doing these same things doesn’t work and can worsen the situation.
I had a client last year who was very sad about her mom’s passing. The two of them were very close and she relied on her heavily in her life for emotional support. Her sadness was lasting a long time and I was actually worried that it could turn into a depression since she was finding it difficult to go back to work or care for her own kids two months after her mother’s death.
I did a very “un-psychologist” seeming thing and told her to snap out of it. I gave her a firm talking to about needing to move on and take care of herself and her kids. I told her she could and would continue to grieve but this was no excuse to check out of her life and abandon her own kids and partner.
Sounds harsh I know. But it worked. It’s like she needed that proverbial slap across the face and she “woke up.”
This would have been disastrous if she’d been depressed. My saying these things would have likely made her more depressed.
Most people can make choices about being happier and what they focus on. Someone who’s clinically depressed and untreated does not have those same choices in the same way because their brain is working differently.
Much like you couldn’t tell someone who has juvenile diabetes to “snap out of it” and “just make your pancreas work again,” we also can’t do this with depression. Sadly, we don’t tend to treat mental health issues with the same compassion that we treat physical issues.
I’ve seen this for years in my work with people struggling with alcohol and substance abuse. There’s this idea that they can “just stop” or “you must not love me if you don’t stop.” This is completely discounting the fact that substance use disorder is a brain disease. The brain has literally been hijacked so treatment or intervention is necessary if someone is going to recover.
It’s harder with this brain stuff because we can’t see it. We think people are acting like victims or looking for attention. We say things like, “Well, I just stopped drinking, you can too.” Or “This is all in your head; you’ve got to stop thinking this way.”
With sadness, you might feel down in the dumps for a day or two, but you’re still able to enjoy simple things like your favorite TV show, food, or spending time with friends. This isn’t the case when someone is dealing with depression. Even activities that they once enjoyed are no longer interesting or pleasurable.
What’s more, when you experience sadness triggered by a certain something, you’re still able to sleep as you usually would, remain motivated to do things, and maintain your desire to eat. Depression, on the other hand, is associated with serious disruption of normal eating and sleeping patterns, as well as not wanting to get out of bed all day.
In sadness, you might feel regret or remorse for something you said or did, but you won’t experience any permanent sense of worthlessness or guilt as you might with depression. One of the diagnostic features of depression is this kind of self-diminishing, negative thought patterns.
Finally, self-harm and suicidal inclinations don’t arise from non-depressive sadness. Those struggling with severe depression may have thoughts of self-harm, death, or suicide, or have a suicide plan.
What Depression Really Is
Clinical depression is actually a very serious and common mood disorder. The biggies are that depressed folks have persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness and tend to lose interest in things they used to enjoy.
We therapy people use a booked called the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM, which is now in its fifth revision) to diagnose all mental disorders from autism to depression to narcissism.
The symptoms outlined in the DSM for depressive disorder are as follows:
- Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.
- Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.
- Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.
- A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).
- Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.
- Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.
- Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.
- Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.
To be diagnosed with depression you need to have at least five of these eight symptoms (with depressed mood or loss of interest in activities included) and they need to have been around for at least two weeks. The symptoms need to cause the person significant impairment in their important areas of functioning (such as school, work, and relationships).
I want to say that these also can’t be due to substance abuse or another medical condition, which is why it’s always great to have a physical first and foremost.
I also want to give a shout out to one of the more common symptoms of depression that’s often missed: angry outbursts. We tend to think of depression only in terms of someone being sad, discouraged or withdrawn. But there can also be agitation, rage, and extreme anxiety. Angry outbursts or flashes of angry mood are common for many depressed people.
So, What Can You Do? My Top 5 Tips for Dealing with a Depressed or Sad Partner
1. Get Thee to a Doctor
A doctor visit is first and foremost. Making an appointment with a trained mental health professional would be best. But, if your partner balks at this, start with a physical to rule out any other issue that could be missed (like substance abuse or another medical condition).
Go with your partner to appointments or help them manage their meds if needed. All this therapy is emotionally exhausting for a depressed person as is trying to manage even simple appointments and medications.
I know all of this can be hard if you’re worried about being codependent. If someone is truly depressed you might need to get the ball rolling and be there to keep it rolling for a little while. If you’re worried, speak to a health care provider yourself to make sure your boundaries are healthy. Just remember that you can’t fix your partner’s depression. You can be supportive, patient and encouraging though. If your partner is depressed, you might need to hold the hope, until they can do it for themselves.
2. Make Home as Healthy as Possible
Whether your partner is depressed or sad, creating a healthy home environment will be beneficial to everyone.
- Keep to routines. If you don’t have routines, this is a good time to start them. The safe container of consistency and limits is helpful to anyone struggling.
- Eat as healthfully as possible. Nutritious foods that don’t disrupt brain chemicals are important. Have regular mealtimes and make sure the food is as healthy as possible. This is not a time to keep a lot of junk food in the house.
- If there’s any way to get some exercise in, that would be amazing. Offer a walk after dinner or a bike ride or hike on the weekend. Even walking in a city and window shopping would be great. Movement is wonderful.
- Related to this is getting out of the house. Even if it’s a car ride, it’s better than being at home all the time. Try for fresh air whenever possible. If your partner won’t hike, maybe they’ll sit with you at the beach or by a lake.
3. Help with Disputing Negative Thoughts
Remember that your partner’s brain has been hijacked and they’re having a hard time thinking clearly. Help them to critically think. This means disputing negative thoughts. I’ve got a great tool to help change feelings and dispute negative thoughts that you can download for free!
When your partner judges themselves harshly (which they’re likely doing), help them to reframe their thinking. When they talk about feeling hopeless be as encouraging as you can and point out any improvements that they’ve made.
4. Ask Collaborative Questions Instead of Doing for Them
If your partner is depressed, you’re walking a tightrope between helping too much and not enough. I highly suggest asking collaborative questions first before doing anything “for” them. When depressed people start doing things for themselves, it actually helps them out of the depression, so you don’t want to take this away. Having said that, sometimes depressed people can’t quite get going or do much for themselves and need your assistance getting help and getting stronger. Sigh…
So, start with supportive questions to figure out what to do next:
- If they’ve been depressed before you might say, “You’ve gotten yourself out of depression before. What was the most helpful thing you did before to feel better?” Or “What was the most helpful thing I did before to help you feel supported?”
- If there’s one thing I could do right now to help you, what would it be?
- If I could say one thing right now that would help move the needle, even a little, what would it be?
- How was your eating today? Is there anything I can do to help you with healthy eating?
- How was your exercise/movement today? Is there anything I can do to help you with getting out of the house/exercising/moving your energy?
5. Don’t Take it Personally
If you’re living with someone who’s depressed it can be very difficult not to take it personally, especially if they’re blaming you!
Your partner’s depression might show up as a very negative mood and constant criticism or sounding off about the hopelessness of your life together. Or their depression might show up as angry outbursts or mood swings. All of these things are symptoms of their mental illness and this mental illness is lying to them. Don’t believe the lies yourself.
As much as you can, practice compassion with your partner and love them.
Your job is not to take this personally. Your job is to encourage them to get the help they need and, if they won’t go, then YOU need to get the help you need. If they refuse help, it’s time for you to get the emotional support you need to draw boundaries and keep your emotional center grounded.
Make sure you’re living your life, eating healthfully, exercising and taking care of yourself. You can’t fill a glass from an empty pitcher. You becoming depressed yourself isn’t going to help your situation.
This also might be a time to get extra help around the house. If your partner is depressed, they likely aren’t doing their usual tasks or chores. If money allows, hire people to pick up the slack so it doesn’t all fall on you. If money is an issue, start bartering or just asking for help (“Hey friend, can you take the kids on Tuesday afternoons for the next month?”) Most people are happy to help or to barter in some way.